It is hard to overstate the influence or the notoriety of James McNeill Whistler, an artist who changed the way paintings were framed and exhibited, set the stage for 20th-century abstract painting, infuriated his most loyal collectors, and nearly went broke suing a famous critic. But as daring as he may have been as a painter and a public figure, Whistler was content to create intimate, highly detailed, powerfully suggestive etchings that were often drawn on the spot as he toured the great cities of Europe.
â€śLa Marchande de Moutarde,â€ť by James McNeill Whistler
â€śThere is a lot of evidence that Whistler took plates with him everywhere and drew on site, although later amendments and states may well have been done in the studio,â€ť says Margaret MacDonald, a spokesperson for the Whistler Etchings Project being undertaken by the University of Glasgow in Scotland. â€śThere is the possibility he used photographs a couple of times in London, but no actual proof of this. However, at the time of the French Set he used drawings, and there are a couple of traced drawings, and composite compositions -- look at the French Set, 'La Marchande de Moutarde,' for instance.â€ť
â€śThe Palaces,â€ť by James McNeill Whistler
MacDonald cites the evidence that Whistler made his etchings right at the site of the urban landscapes. For example, the small size of the prints suggests the copper plates were held in his hands; the dominance of linear marks indicates that he didnâ€™t use studio techniques like aquatint or soft-ground; the presence of dry point lines reveals the handwork done after the ground was removed from the copper plates; and the reversal of the actual views of Venice, London, and Amsterdam.
â€śThe Fishing Boat,â€ť by James McNeill Whistler
The fact that the prints present mirror images of the actual locations makes it clear that Whistler drew what he observed and allowed the printing process to present the mirror image of those scenes. If he had been working from drawings, photographs, or his recollections, it is likely he would have scratched the mirror image into the etching ground so the finished print would offer collectors a representation of locations as they knew them. The response from those collectors was very important to Whistler as he often depended on the sale of prints to stop the downward spiral of his fortunes. If the prints had been created entirely in the studio, Whistler would certainly have designed them so the final images would be right-reading.
â€śNocturne: Furnace,â€ť by James McNeill Whistler
Seen within the context of Whistlerâ€™s entire body of artwork, the etchings were another attempt by the artist to suggest the atmosphere, space, and fleeting reality of his subjects rather than the elaborate details of a narrative. While other artists in London and Paris were painting scenes populated by elaborately costumed aristocrats, or cupids floating around naked women, Whistler made quick studies of peasants, dockworkers, children, ships, and doorways -- some of the same subjects that inspired his wispy, thinly painted oils and watercolors. His concern was always about the power of suggestion and the luxury of surface. For more information, visit http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk/.