WHISTLER & COMPANY: The Etching Revival

The etching revival of the second half of the 19th century—led by expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler—took hold in
France, England, and the United States. Artists set out to re-establish
etching—the art of incising lines with an etching needle into a thin
copper plate which was then dipped in an acid bath, inked and pressed into paper with the help
of a printing press to create impressions—as an art form that could
stand on its own. Inspired by Rembrandt and the old masters, practitioners
created remarkably original and expressive compositions that gained
popularity with refined collectors and the broader public.  Key artists who participated in the etching revival included
Francis Seymour Haden, James McBey, Edwin Edwards, David Young Cameron,
Muirhead Bone, Mortimer Menpes, Charles Meryon, Maxime Lalanne, Joseph
Pennell, and Frank Duveneck, among others.

The Forge (1861) by James Abbott McNeill WhistlerReading Public Museum

The etching revival emerged in France and England around the middle of the nineteenth century. By the 1860s, proponents of the movement advocated for the medium as an independent mode of expression for the artist, as opposed to its use merely as a means of replicating paintings. Rembrandt and the etchers of the Dutch Golden Age inspired the group of printmakers active in France, Great Britain, and the United States. Societies and artists’ organizations dedicated to etching promoted the medium by publishing and marketing limited-edition portfolios with works by members.

Annie Seated, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1859, From the collection of: Reading Public Museum
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Whistler was a leading figure in the etching revival, working in both France and Great Britain. The sitter in this work is the artist's niece, Annie Haden, who was about nine or ten years old when Whistler portrayed her. The artist spent Christmas in London with Annie's parents: Francis Seymour Haden, himself an amateur etcher, and Deborah Delano Haden, Whistler’s half-sister. This is one of the artist's early figural studies of children; others include 'Annie', 'Little Arthur', and 'Seymour Standing' all from 1857-8.

J. Becquet, Sculptor, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1859, From the collection of: Reading Public Museum
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This sheet comes from Whistler’s time in Paris, where he created etched self-portraits and portraits of friends. The sitter in this image is a friend of Whistler's, named Just Becquet, who was a sculptor with some musical talents. Whistler chooses to focus on details of the sitter's face and expression, leaving the rest of the figure in a relatively sketchy state, which in this sheet is emphasized with dramatic plate toning.

La Vieille aux Loques, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1858, From the collection of: Reading Public Museum
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This composition was created at the beginning of Whistler’s preoccupation with façades and doorways. It is likely that this work was etched in Paris and was published in 'Twelve Etchings from Nature' (the 'French Set') in 1858.

Bibi Valentin (1859) by James Abbott McNeill WhistlerReading Public Museum

The doe-eyed reclining sitter was the young child of Valentin, one of Whistler’s friends in Paris. The etching was created in 1859, when the artist embarked on a series of portraits including 'Bibi Lalouette', 'C. L. Drouet, Sculptor', and 'Fumette Standing', among others.

Rag Pickers, Quartier Mouffetard, Paris, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1858, From the collection of: Reading Public Museum
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Although not included in the 'French Set,' this etching must have been made at the same time as the Old Rag Gatherer, another of Whistler's French "doorway" views. Originally the scene lacked figures and Whistler titled the work after the name of the district in Paris known as the 'Latin Quarter.' The figures were only added after 1861, when the plate was reprinted.

The Riva No. 1, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1879 - 1880, From the collection of: Reading Public Museum
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The artist etched this elevated point of view of the Riva degli Schiavone in Venice from the second floor of Casa Jankowitz. Dating from 1879-80, the work was part of a commission he received from the Fine Art Society of London. The traditional method of showing detail in the foreground is flouted by Whistler, who, instead, presents an open triangular piazza. The composition is populated by fishermen and a groups of people engaged in conversation.

Vine Tavern, Mile End Road, Stepney, London (1871) by Edwin EdwardsReading Public Museum

Edwards, a lawyer by training, was inspired to become an etcher by the French artist Henri Fantin-Latour, whom he first met in Paris in 1861. He was well connected within European artistic circles, befriending Alphonse Legros and James McNeil Whistler. This work shows The Vine Tavern, which was once situated on Mile End Road in East London.

Outside the Inn, Edwin Edwards, 1871, From the collection of: Reading Public Museum
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This work is from the artist’s three-volume 'Old Inns' and demonstrates Edwards’s interests in light, shadow and texture in the medium of etching. The third volume of Edwards’s comprehensive study of old inns and hotels was published in 1881 by his widow, Ruth, eight years after the initial volume appeared.

Retour des Champs (Return from the Fields), Jules Bastien-LePage, 1878, From the collection of: Reading Public Museum
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A painter-etcher who was deeply interested in a naturalistic approach to painting and graphic work in the tradition of Millet, Bastien-Lepage frequently depicted scenes of everyday life in the countryside. He was intimately familiar with such scenes, as he grew up on a farm. This etching is typical of his favored subject matter, showing a solitary heroic peasant, who pauses from her day's work.

Souvenir de St. Denis, Auguste Louis Lepère, 1913, From the collection of: Reading Public Museum
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A French painter and etcher, Lepère was also the undisputed leader in the etching revival in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. He became known as the prime graphic artist of scenes from everyday life. He also experimented with such innovative techniques as combining etching and wood engraving in the same print.

An Autumn Evening: Near Rossillon (1874) by Adolphe AppianReading Public Museum

A painter by training in the Barbizon tradition, studying with the famous painter-etcher, Jean-Baptiste Corot, Appian turned to etching around the 1860s and became one of its most skilled and creative practitioners. His graphic work demonstrates attention to atmospheric effects and an abiding interest in contrasts between light and dark, mastering subtle variations of tone and texture.

Monte Caprino, Rome, Herman Armour Webster, c. 1925, From the collection of: Reading Public Museum
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New York born Webster traveled to Europe, where he was first exposed to the graphic works of Whistler, Charles Meryon and other artists who took part in the etching revival. This view of Rome shows the area of the Campidoglio, with streets and open spaces teeming with pedestrians who make their way through the complex urban fabric of the Eternal City.

On New York Bay, Henry Farrer, 1879, From the collection of: Reading Public Museum
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Farrer immigrated to New York from his native England in the 1860s and began etching seascapes and views of New York City. He was one of the most outspoken advocates for the medium of etching as a creative tool for artists, serving as one of the founders of the New York Etching Club in 1873. This work is an excellent example of his marine subjects combining atmospheric and light effects in one plate.

Parisian Boulevard seen through a Balcony Railing (1860s) by Edwin EdwardsReading Public Museum

By the 1870s and 80s, the revival of etching had become an international sensation, spreading to Great Britain and the United States, where etching societies published portfolios by leading painter-etchers of the day. The popularity of etching continued into the early twentieth century with a new generation of artists discovering the inherent creative potential of the medium.

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