An artist abroad
the prints of James McNeill Whistler
25 March – 10 July 2005
The Thames set
The influential French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire called for ‘modern’ subject matter in art — an idea that increasingly gained support amongst younger artists. In 1859 Baudelaire disparaged the many tired and dull landscapes exhibited in Paris at the Salon that year, and he urged artists to choose alternative subjects, including cityscapes, ‘a genre which I can only call the landscape of great cities’. Conscious of Baudelaire’s remarks – and inspired by Charles Meryon’s captivating series of etchings of ‘the hidden Paris’, of 1850–54 – Whistler began making etchings of London, seeking to capture the essence of little known aspects of the English capital. In 1860 he decided to stay in London to continue his work, and he spent two months living in the East End, exploring that part of the city. The River Thames at that time was virtually a quagmire of dirt and disease, framed by buildings, sometimes derelict, sometimes overcrowded. Whistler produced evocative images of the Thames and its surrounds, its people and its haunts — land, water and cityscapes. His series of Sixteen etchings of scenes on the Thames, which came to be known as the ‘Thames set’, was completed in 1861.
image details: top: 'The lime-burner' from the 'Thames set' 1859 bottom: 'Millbank' from the 'Thames set' 1861both intaglio prinst, in the Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
The French set
In 1858 Whistler set out to see the paintings of Rembrandt in Amsterdam, but lack of funds cut short his journey. Instead he toured northern France, Luxembourg and the Rhineland, taking his sketchbooks and etching plates with him. These small copper plates were easy to carry and he could draw spontaneously and directly from nature.
The technique of etching involves first covering the plate with an acid-resistant waxy coating. The artist composes the image by scratching into this waxy ground with a special needle. The plate is then immersed in a bath of acid, leaving the scratched lines exposed. A buttery ink is rubbed into the incisions and the plate wiped clean. Damp paper is placed on the inked plate and then it is passed through an etching press, where pressure forces the softened paper into the inked incisions, making an impression.
Though Whistler failed to reach the Dutch capital, a selection of rural views from his travels – drawn from nature in the careful and unglamorous manner of the French Barbizon artists – was included as part of his series of prints, the ‘French set’. The rural views complement the other images in the series, which are figure studies of urban Paris drawn from life and inspired by the caricatures of Honoré Daumier and Gavarni. As with all his prints, Whistler made a careful selection of papers for his impressions, and in the case of the ‘French set’ these were printed on chine collé, a laid oriental paper.
image details: top: 'La vieille aux loques' [The old rag-seller] from the 'French set' 1858 bottom: 'The unsafe tenement' 1858 intaglio print both in the Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
The Venice sets
In the late 1870s Whistler became embroiled in legal proceedings with John Ruskin, the noted English aesthetician and critic. Ruskin had accused him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’— referring to a painting of Whistler’s exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, London, in 1877. In response Whistler took Ruskin to court on a charge of libel. He won the case, but was awarded just one farthing in damages – a legal slap in the face. With huge lawyers’ fees, he found himself in dire financial straits, and was stripped of his assets by the bailiffs, including his house in Chelsea.
The ignominy of the whole experience and the damage to his reputation as an artist took its toll. Whistler’s solution to avoid further disaster was to travel to Venice, the city that had inspired so many artists, and whose palaces and seascapes had been immortalised by the English artist J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) – a painter admired by Whistler since childhood. He arrived in Venice in September 1879 and, despite the cold weather and his ill health, pursued his aim to capture the essence of Venice. Just as he had done for the ‘Thames set’, Whistler depicted little known haunts as well as familiar sites, often from unusual viewpoints.
Unconventional compositional devices, such as high horizon lines, are a feature of many of the prints Whistler made in Venice. We have his own description of his drawing method there:
I began first of all by seizing upon the chief point of interest. Perhaps it might have been the extreme distance – the little palaces and the shipping beneath the bridge. If so I would begin drawing that distance in elaborately, and then would expand from it until I came to the bridge, which I would draw in one broad sweep. In this way the picture must necessarily be a perfect thing from start to finish.
Whistler also sought great variation in his etching technique, sometimes leaving a plate covered in a thin film of ink rather than just retained in the etched lines, He aimed for results that came to be described as ‘artistic printing’ – characterised by uneven inking, nuance and painterly qualities.
Whistler’s scenes of Venice were criticised at the time because of his adoption of ‘picturesque’ compositions that included details of everyday habitation and signs of decay. Yet these images were to become the adopted interpretation of the next generation of artists – including the French Impressionists, Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet – who sought to capture the essence of a city, its cityscapes and river views.
image details: top: 'The doorway from the first 'Venice set' 1879–80 middle: 'The palaces' 1879–80 bottom: 'Two doorways' from the 'Venice set' 1879–80 intaglio print all in the Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge