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An artist abroad
the prints of James McNeill Whistler
25 March – 10 July 2005

introduction | essay | conservation | French set | Thames set | Venice set

 

image: James McNeill Whistler The lime-burner from the Thames set 1859 intaglio print Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaThe lime-burner' 1859 intaglio print Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

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.

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