One of art’s most inventive and influential printmakers, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) made nearly 500 etchings over five decades, as well as some 180 lithographs. As a gifted young draftsman, he recognised the medium’s ability to record and reproduce sketches scratched quickly into the wax coating of copper plates; as a mature artist, he immersed himself in the complexities of etching, drypoint and controlled inking to produce striking works of astounding subtlety.
He spent some of his teenage years in London, living with his half-sister and her husband Francis Seymour Haden, a surgeon, avid etcher and Rembrandt collector. After his father’s death, Whistler returned to his native US and entered West Point Military Academy in 1851, studying art but failing elsewhere. A brief stint followed at the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, where he felt confined drawing maps but learned to etch and doodled figures reminiscent of the French caricaturist Paul Gavarni across the top of a topographic view.
Funds advanced by a family friend enabled the crucial move to Paris in 1855. Whistler took drawing classes, entered the studio of Charles Gleyre and, encouraged by Haden, began etching by 1857. Reproductive prints were still the norm for etching, so Whistler broke new ground as he toured Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland in 1858 to develop a series titled Douze eaux-forts d’après nature (Twelve Etchings from Nature, or the "French Set"). Working out-of-doors, he drew onto copper plates, then bathed the exposed metal in acid in his room to etch printable lines. A forerunner of the etching revival, this first published set includes works from the tour, others created in Paris and portraits of Haden’s children. Ancient buildings and ordinary workers demonstrate sympathy for French Realism as espoused by Gustave Courbet. Auguste Delâtre, a master of "artistic printing," was enlisted to create the first twenty sets. Whistler and Delâtre then took the plates to London and worked with Haden to print fifty more, sending examples to the Paris Salon and Royal Academy in 1859.
Seeking new inspiration and broader support, Whistler moved to London in 1859 and lived in a wharf district below Tower Bridge. Commercial activity along the Thames, whose banks were densely lined with warehouses and wharves, inspired many etchings in the early 1860s, a selection published in 1871 as A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames (the "Thames Set"). These focus on the Pool of London—the furthest point upstream that large ships could navigate—combined with lyrical views of a quiet stretch of river near Chelsea, the artist’s home from 1863.
Whistler experimented with formal arrangements inspired by Japanese woodblock prints; imitating Hokusai and Hiroshige, he established distinct vertical and horizontal formats, defined space in startling new ways, and cropped forms with margins. He also began to wipe his inks expressively and to work in drypoint, preferring softer lines scratched directly into the copper for figures and portraits. Charles Baudelaire praised Whistler’s prints of this decade, but most English critics failed to appreciate his progressive vision and gave precedence to Haden.
The "First and Second Venice Sets", published in the 1880s, mark a highpoint of Whistler’s creative genius, the plates etched during a fourteen-month stay in Italy, beginning in September 1879. Evocative responses to the Venetian Lagoon, shadowy palaces on small canals, misty twilight and reflections that dance off water into dark passageways balance plane and recession, decorative line and evanescent tone. These works move beyond obvious japonisme and place Whistler at the forefront of the Aesthetic movement, with its celebration of visual beauty and comparisons between art and music.
London’s Fine Art Society had sponsored the Venetian trip, expecting the artist to return in three months with twelve plates ready to publish. But the journey came on the heels of a sensational and financially disastrous court case that Whistler brought against John Ruskin in 1877, reacting to his critical savaging of the painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Whistler won, but received only a farthing in damages, and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1879. Venice offered a welcome respite and, as the artist lingered abroad, he made 50 etchings and 100 pastels.
Late in 1880, the Fine Art Society published Venice, a Series of Twelve Etchings, with the ink expertly manipulated in a manner that approaches monotype. Whistler also devised a distinct new presentation, trimming the paper close to the plate line with a small tab left below to contain his emblematic butterfly signature. When the gallery exhibited all the Venetian etchings in 1883 in a show called An Arrangement in White and Yellow, the artist dictated wall colours, frames and arrangement, all sympathetic to Aestheticism. A Set of Twenty-six Etchings (the "Second Venice Set") was issued in 1886 with recent English subjects included. Initially, few collectors recognised the beauty and significance of these works.
The Venetian etchings mark a midpoint in Whistler’s prolific output and overshadow much of what followed. For the rest of his life, he continued printing these plates sporadically for the Fine Art Society to complete the editions. In his later decades, he found new subjects in London, Paris and Brussels, and along the English and Belgian coasts. A late burst of creativity came in 1889, following his marriage to Beatrice Philip. The couple honeymooned in the Loire Valley, then moved to Amsterdam for two months, where Whistler responded delightedly to old buildings on quiet canals and produced a set of elegiac etchings in which patterned surfaces interlace with subtle shifts of tone. Recognising their emerging power, the artist wrote to the director of the Fine Art Society:
‘I find myself doing far finer work than any that I have hitherto produced—and the subjects appeal to me most sympathetically … The beauty & importance of these plates, you can only estimate from your knowledge of my care for my own reputation … what I have begun is of far finer quality than all that has gone before—combining minuteness of detail … with greater freedom and more beauty of execution than even the Venice set…’
Etching offered Whistler the opportunity to sketch ideas quickly, then slowly refine and develop them through multiple states, creating variations with expressive inking. His rich, nuanced production sheds light on his many influences and complex aesthetic. Far from restricting his creative vision, the medium’s technical demands and monochrome palette offered essential structure. However many variations he might create, the "butterfly" artist had the ongoing satisfaction of seeing each state completed in the printing.
This etching with drypoint was one of the 16-print 'Thames set', dating from 1859 but published - to critical acclaim - in 1871. A daringly abstract composition, it is dominated by moored fishing vessels, and the bow of a barge in the left foreground. Whistler was probably sitting on the nearby Custom House Stairs to etch the scene before him.
For many centuries Billingsgate was the main wharf for the mooring of fishing vessels and landing their cargoes. Corn, malt, salt and fish were landed as early as the 13th century. The local market was especially famous for fish, as well as the bad language used by some fishmongers. London Bridge and the tower of Southwark Cathedral are visible in the background on the right.
Te Papa's impression is from the seventh of eight states; all but the final state, made by master printer Frederick Goulding, are rare.
Constance C. McPhee, 'James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) as Etcher', in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/whet/hd_whet.htm (April 2015)
Dr Mark Stocker Curator, Historical International Art August 2018