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: Whistler as Printmaker


Dennis Michael Jon



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Art is the science of the Beautiful. . .
—J. M. WhistlerDespite his notoriety as an audacious showman, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was always very serious about his art. This seriousness of purpose was manifest in his lifelong dedication to the art of etching. In fact, his recurring battles with London critics over his paintings never compromised his well-deserved reputation as an accomplished and innovative printmaker.A new exhibition, "Copper Into Gold: Etchings and Drypoints by James McNeill Whistler," presents a glimpse of the artist's extraordinary virtuosity as an etcher. Organized by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and drawn entirely from its extensive collection of graphic art, the exhibition features 35 etchings and drypoints representing nearly 40 years of the artist's career.Whistler was celebrated for his etchings from an early age. He launched his career in 1858 with the publication of Douze eaux-fortes d'apres Nature, a series of etchings more commonly known as the "French Set." Inspired in part by the etchings of Rembrandt, these naturalistic prints were greatly admired for their spontaneity and expressive quality of line. These traits arose from his practice of sketching directly on the copper plate, rather than transferring designs from sketchbooks. The success of this eclectic group of portraits, figure types, and urban and rural genre scenes immediately established him as one of the leading etchers of his day.Whistler built upon this early triumph the following year with the execution of a group of riverfront views that would later serve as the core for his famous "Thames Set," a series of etchings first published in 1871. Reflecting his newfound admiration for the clean-lined etchings of Wenzel Hollar and Charles Meryon, these realist dockside scenes sensitively captured London working-class life among the dilapidated warehouses and shipyards of the Thames River.During the 1860s and '70s, Whistler became increasingly devoted to aestheticism, an artistic stance whose "art for art's sake" philosophy would be a guiding principle during the latter decades of his career. Adopting compositional and aesthetic elements from Japanese art, Pre-Raphaelism, and even photography, Whistler pursued beauty on its own terms, rejecting any hint of narrative or anecdote in his art.This growing fascination with beauty was the raison d'être for his "Venice Sets" of 1879-80 and 1886, completed during the period Whistler would later refer to as his "impressionistic" phase of etching. Each of these sets depicted both well-known sites and obscure corners of the city during daylight and at night (compositions he called nocturnes). In these series, Whistler created a delicate synthesis of picturesque form, atmospheric effect, and decorative pattern, underscoring his belief that a picture should be appreciated on its own terms: as an arrangement of colors (or in the case of etchings, values), lines, and shapes. Initially criticized for their lack of defined form, the Venice etchings would later take their place among his most admired prints.Whistler regarded his final series of prints—the Amsterdam etchings of 1890—to be his finest achievement as an etcher. In these ethereal views, all of the essential ingredients of his work were present, from suggestive line to delicate pattern to poetic resonance. He saw his Amsterdam series as the merging of his realist and "impressionistic" phases of etching, thus joining the early and middle stages of his career. It seems most appropriate that in the city that gave us Rembrandt, Whistler would make his last major contribution to the history of etching. Dennis Michael Jon is Assistant Curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts."Copper Into Gold: Etchings and Drypoints by James McNeill Whistler"
October 1, 1999-February 27, 2000
Gallery 319
Organized by The Minneapolis Institute of ArtsRelated ImagesAnnie Hayden, 1860
Etching and drypoint
Bequest of Herschel V. JonesThe Limeburner, 1859
Etching and drypoint
The William M. Ladd Collection
Gift of Herschel V. Jones
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Source: Dennis Michael Jon, "Whistler as Printmaker: American painter James McNeill Whistler was an innovative master etcher," <i>Arts</i> 22, no. 8 (October 1999): 21.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009