Whistler's watermarks

Bibi the Lark and her countermark


image: 'Annie Haden' 1860 etching and drypoint Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Bibi Lalouette drawn by James McNeill Whistler in 1859. The image is in the ‘incomplete print’ style. Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

This beguiling image of a curly-headed girl was drawn in 1859 by James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) in the intaglio printing media of drypoint and etching. Bibi Lalouette was the daughter of a Parisian restaurant owner who had extended credit to the young artist on his first exploration of the world of art in France and the Netherlands.1 The collection holds an etching by Whistler drawn also in 1859 of a child Bibi Valentin. ‘Bibi’ was a generic diminutive, fashionable then and until about 1930, but now little used, and L’alouette’ means ‘the lark’.

Whistler had a special affection for the richness of the ink deposit produced by the drypoint system. The steel or diamond-tipped burin used in drypoint cuts directly into the metal printing plate (rather than into a bituminous coating on an etching support). In doing so, the burin throws up a burr which holds the ink generously but, in its full beauty, only for the first five or so pulls. It was one of the reasons Whistler liked to use old papers, Dutch or Japanese, because of their ability to accept ink felicitously. The draughtsmanship throughout the Bibi image and notably in the richly described hair, demonstrates that at twenty-four years of age Whistler was already a master of the intaglio media. 

Seymour Haden, Whistler’s brother-in-law and fifteen years his senior, had amassed a substantial collection of prints, including a number of etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669).  Haden encouraged Whistler to study the print works of Rembrandt and those by other artists of the 17th-century Dutch school.2 In consequence, a prime aim of Whistler’s Continental sally of 1858  was to view the holdings of Rembrandt’s work in the great Dutch collections, notably at Antwerp.

Whistler’s Bibi Lalouette is in the manner of the ‘unfinished print’, the non finito of art historians and the subject of debate in European art for more than four centuries.  It will be seen from the first illustration that whilst the head and clothing have been rendered in meticulous detail, place is accorded the merest of indications. Are such works to be read as incomplete? Doubts seem to have first arisen from the mountain of ‘unfinished’ works left at his death by Michaelangelo Buonarotti (1475–1564).  His earliest biographers and avid admirers Vasari and Condini were nonplussed as to how to interpret the artistic status of such works, uncertainties which to this day have never been resolved with any precision.3

Doubts were intensified by the highly experimental works of Rembrandt and were extended in assessing the work of Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) and others.  Marshall reminds us that the printmakers responsible for the mid-19th century etching revival took their cue directly from Rembrandt and detailed portraits with incomplete figures became fashionable.4 Thus, in the mode of his times, Whistler has lavished great descriptive care on the portrait section of Bibi Lalouette but has given the setting no more indication than a few assured strokes of the drypoint burin. It is unnecessary here to pursue an objective definition of ‘completeness’. Instead, let us rest content with Rembrandt’s dictum: A work is finished when an artist realizes his intentions.5

Rembrandt as an intaglio printmaker customarily produced numerous states of a given print on different papers, rejecting uniformity and embracing the unique characteristics of his materials such as Japanese papers, of which European artists had a new and, as yet, limited awareness. That mode of working was entirely to the taste of Whistler and he made it a governing principle of his own processes, somewhat to the offence of print-lovers of the time.

The name Bouchet in cursive script is revealed as a countermark when a print of Bibi Lalouette is photographed by transmitted light.

The name Bouchet in cursive script is revealed as a countermark when a print of Bibi Lalouette is photographed by transmitted light.

Whistler came to know that Rembrandt occasionally (though rarely) used silk, rather than paper, as the support for prints.  Ever willing to follow the great master and being himself a compulsive experimentalist, Whistler pulled in 1859 a copy of Bibi Lalouette  on silk satin. It is now in the Art Gallery of Ontario.6

We have another interest in showing the Bibi Lalouette print and that is because it bears a countermark, a device associated with, but distinct from, the watermark. The countermark does not usually take the form of an illustration but generally consists of a name, an initial (or a pair of initials) or a date, which is often presented in Roman numerals. All of these components are capable of being variously interpreted. A name is often that of the owner of the paper mill, but it might instead be the name of the mill or of its locality; similarly with initials, which could be those of the owner, or of an especially skilled and valued employee. (We speculate, on some slight indication that initials could even be an arcane supplication seeking a divine blessing of prosperity of the mill). A date as countermark cannot be read as the age of the paper support: it is likely to be the date of the establishment of the paper mill or merely the year of manufacture of the mould on which the sheet was formed.

Not all papers carrying a watermark have a countermark; conversely, a countermark is almost always associated with a watermark, though not necessarily adjacent to it. The layout of the sheet is partly dependent on its size and that can vary widely. In Britain alone a representative range is from 39 x 32 cm to 183 x 123 cm, the latter surpassing the irresistibly-named Double Elephant at 102 x 69 cm. Silvie Turner further reports a paper made by hand in 1930 at the Whatman Mill in Kent which measured 787 x 134 cm. It required a lifting device to bring the mould up from the vat and a crew of six to eight men for the dipping and couching processes.7

Often, but not invariably, the watermark was placed at the centre of one half of the whole sheet, with the countermark at the centre of the other half. Exceptions were common. In northern Italy, for example, countermarks were placed in one or more corners of the sheet. In others the countermark device may fill the whole of the half sheet. Heawood cites an 18th-century paper made in Italy for the Spanish market in which an image of a picador occupied all of the left half of a sheet, meeting and merging with that of the bull on the right half.8 Frederick Goulding, the London printer engaged by Whistler’s executrix for the posthumous editions, tended to cut his sheets to print size in ways which preserved a watermark entire. Whistler had no such regard and, like Rembrandt (in whose lifetime good paper was immensely expensive), cut his paper parsimoniously with narrow margins to the image. In consequence watermarks and countermarks were sliced through willy-nilly. In providing only narrow margins Whistler was, once again, flouting current fashion.

An image of the sea scallop shell watermark shown in transmitted light, associated with the countermark of J Bouchet.

An image of the sea scallop shell watermark shown in transmitted light, associated with the countermark of J  Bouchet.

The countermark in Bibi Lalouette is the name ‘J Bouchet’, revealed when the print is viewed by transmitted light to lie, in cursive script, along the subject’s thigh.

Names in full became frequent after about the middle of the 18th-century following the adoption of this mode by papermakers in France and its borderlands.9

Examples of the one countermark can vary in style of execution.  Large mills with a number of vats and an even larger number of paper-making moulds frequently show small variations in the countermark.10 Changes would also occur over time as the wire renditions of the watermark and countermark were formed by a succession of craftsmen. Thus, although the example of the Bouchet countermark in our Bibi Lalouette is in the style of the two illustrations given by Heawood,11 and that shown by Stratis,12 all four differ one from another in detail. Stratis remarks that her Chicago example was printed by Goulding on a sheet removed from a book, a source often exploited by Whistler.13

Heawood reports his examples thus: illus 3797–Paris? [sic] after  1813; illus. 3798  Paris after  1821.14

The portion of the paper sheet on which Bibi Lalouette is printed does not include a watermark, but there are indications that a rendering of a shell of the sea scallop, (also known as a fan shell), can be associated with the Bouchet countermark.  Heawood

links the shell with the Bouchet countermark in his illustration 3797.15 The same pairing occurs in the lithograph The Marketplace, Vitre drawn on the stone in 1893 and printed by Goulding in 1904.16

We take an opportunity to thank Gillian Currie of the National Gallery of Australia Research Library for her perceptive and productive acquisitions of monographs in the field of watermarks.  We appreciate and enjoy her interest in our enterprise and see her as very much one of the team.

Kassandra  Coghlan  and  Bill Hamilton


1 Lochnan K.A. The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler New Haven, Yale University Press, 1984. p.104

2 Lochnan p.9

3 Marshall P. The Unfinished Print (Introduction), The National Gallery of Art, Washington; Lund Humphries,Burlington USA and Aldershot UK, 2001 p.7

4 Marshall p.40

5 Marshall p.50

6 Compare Lochnan K.A. p. 114 caption to plate.144

7 Turner S. Which? Paper [sic]  estamp [sic] London 1991 p.117

8 Heawood E. Watermarks: Mainly of the17th and 18th Centuries Hilversum 1950 pp.36–37

9 Heawood p.36

10 Heawood p.41

11 Heawood p.l510, illus. 3797, 3798

12 Stratis H. Whistler’s Papers: Compilation of Watermarks inThe Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler Vol.2 The Art Institute of Chicago.  Hudson Hills Press, New York 1998

13 Stratis H.  p 316  note  59

14 Compare. Heawood E.  p.148

15 Heawood plate.510 illus. 3797

16 On-line catalogue of the Hunterian Art Gallery Whistler Collections GLAHA  49738.  The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow