An artist abroad
the prints of James McNeill Whistler
25 March – 10 July 2005
The doorway 1879–80 intaglio print Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail
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.