An artist abroad
the prints of James McNeill Whistler
25 March – 10 July 2005
'La vieille aux loques' [The old rag-seller] 1858 intaglio print Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail
The French set
In 1858 Whistler set out to see the paintings of Rembrandt in Amsterdam, but lack of funds cut short his journey. Instead he toured northern France, Luxembourg and the Rhineland, taking his sketchbooks and etching plates with him. These small copper plates were easy to carry and he could draw spontaneously and directly from nature.
The technique of etching involves first covering the plate with an acid-resistant waxy coating. The artist composes the image by scratching into this waxy ground with a special needle. The plate is then immersed in a bath of acid, leaving the scratched lines exposed. A buttery ink is rubbed into the incisions and the plate wiped clean. Damp paper is placed on the inked plate and then it is passed through an etching press, where pressure forces the softened paper into the inked incisions, making an impression.
Though Whistler failed to reach the Dutch capital, a selection of rural views from his travels – drawn from nature in the careful and unglamorous manner of the French Barbizon artists – was included as part of his series of prints, the ‘French set’. The rural views complement the other images in the series, which are figure studies of urban Paris drawn from life and inspired by the caricatures of Honoré Daumier and Gavarni. As with all his prints, Whistler made a careful selection of papers for his impressions, and in the case of the ‘French set’ these were printed on chine collé, a laid oriental paper.