An artist abroad
the prints of James McNeill Whistler

25 March – 10 July 2005

Introduction | Essay | Conservation | The sets

James McNeill Whistler 'The lime-burner' from the 'Thames set' 1859 intaglio print, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia James McNeill Whistler 'The lime-burner' from the 'Thames set' 1859 intaglio print, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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In 1855 at the age of 21 James McNeiIl Whistler (1834—1903) set off from his native America for Europe, determined to become an artist. He was never to return to his country of birth. Instead he became a significant figure in the art worlds of France and England in the second half of the 19th century as a painter and printmaker. Whistler’s legacy as a printmaker is demonstrated through his series of remarkable etchings and later lithographs which he made from the 1850s to the turn of the century. The exhibition An artist abroad will showcase a selection of about 100 prints drawn from the Gallery’s rich collection of some 260 works.

Many of the prints in the Gallery’s Whistler collection have an interesting provenance. In 1978 the Gallery purchased a major group of prints from the important American collector Charles C Cunningham. He, in turn, obtained these works from the collection of the wealthy, free-spending American art lover George Washington Vanderbilt (1862—1914). In 1980 the Gallery acquired a further group of works from the artist’s own collection that had originally been bequeathed to the University of Glasgow by Whistler’s sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip. Following the death of his wife, Beatrix Whistler, in 1896 Whistler became increasingly become reliant on her younger sister Rosalind. On Whistler’s death she became his executor and heir of the artist’s estate, and it is from this source that these important works came into the collection following her death in 1958.

On arrival in Europe Whistler travelled first to London and then to Paris, the city that would become the centre of the Western art world as the century progressed. By November 1855 he was undertaking studies at the Ecole impériale et spéciale de dessin and, in the following year, at the atelier of the Swiss-born artist Charles Gleyre.

Whistler was not a good student and found the café and street-life of bohemian Paris on the Left Bank more inspiring than the Classroom. A visit in 1857 to the exhibition Art treasures of the United Kingdom collected in Manchester introduced Whistler to the wonders of Dutch 17th-century artists including Rembrandt van Rijn, along with the Spanish master Diego Velazquez, Rembrandt, in particular, remained an inspiration for Whistler throughout his career. Admiration for this Dutch artist by Whistler and others was to renew interest in the art of etching in the second half of the 19th century. Whistler himself was to become a key figure in this etching revival, although his loosely worked painterly style, known as ‘artistic printing’, came to be criticised by purists.

In Paris Whistler met the artist Henri Fantin-Latour, who introduced him to the bohemian haunts of Paris, most notably the Café Voltaire, where the young American befriended some of the emerging artists including Edouard Manet, Felix Braquemond and Alphonse Legros, who later became key players in the French art scene. It is likely that Whistler would have been aware of the art of the leading French Realist, Gustave Courbet, who was a controversial figure in French art circles owing to his choice of contemporary settings that dispense with the reliance on historical, classical or allegorical themes. The influence of French Realism is apparent in Whistler’s first major exercise in printmaking, Twelve etchings from nature 1858, also known as the ‘French set’, that consist of a series of views of Paris and the surrounding countryside.

James McNeill Whistler 'Thames warehouses' from the 'Thames set' '1859 intaglio print, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia James McNeill Whistler 'Thames warehouses' from the 'Thames set' '1859 intaglio print, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

During 1858, eager to see more of Rembrandt’s art, Whistler set off with the artist Ernest Delannoy on a trip to Amsterdam. But the journey was cut short because Whistler ran out of funds. His intention was to tour northern France, Luxembourg and the Rhineland taking sketchbooks and copper plates to etch with him. Though he failed to reach the Dutch capital, a selection of rural views drawn in situ in the careful and unglamorous manner of the French Barbizon artists also formed part of the ‘French set’. These were in contrast to the figure studies of urban Paris drawn from life. In this way the ‘French set’ conformed to the influential poet and critic Charles Baudelaire’s call for ‘modern’ subject-matter — a demand that increasingly gained support among younger artists.

In 1859 Baudelaire disparaged the many tired and dull landscapes he saw at the Salon of that year. Instead of rural scenes he urged artists to choose alternative subjects, including cityscapes, ‘a genre which I can only call the landscape of great cities’.1 Whistler again took up the call. In May 1860, he decided to live in London as he was keen to begin a series of etchings of the city. Conscious of Baudelaire’s remarks and inspired by Charles Meryon’s captivating views of the hidden Paris in his series of etchings, Faux-fortes sur Paris 1850—54, Whistler sought to capture the essence of a little-known London and its docklands with a series of etchings Sixteen etchings of scenes on the Thames, which came to be known as the ‘Thames set’ 1861. To this end he spent two months living in the East End and exploring that part of the city. At the time the river Thames was virtually a quagmire of dirt and disease, framed by derelict and overcrowded buildings. While the influence of French Realism was still apparent in the ‘Thames set’, other influences came into play at this time and these are especially evident in his choice of social subject matter. He had long admired the paintings and prints of the l8th-century English artist William Hogarth, whose works provided powerful commentaries on the social life of his age. Hogarth’s depictions of down and out people in London proved to be an inspiration for Whistler’s London studies.

Another influence was the art of China and Japan, in particular Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. It is most likely that Whistler became familiar with these prints through the proselytising of the French artist Felix Braquemond. Whistler’s growing admiration for Japanese art can be seen in his adoption of a flatter space, and the silhouetting and cropping of subject matter in several of the ‘Thames set’ etchings. During the mid 1870s and while living in England, Whistler had become embroiled in legal proceedings with the noted artist and aesthetician John Ruskin after the older artist had accused Whistler of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’2 in reference to the recently exhibited Nocturne paintings, in particular Nocturne in black and gold: the falling rocket of 1875 which was remarkable for its almost formless subject and painterly quality. Whistler was incensed by these comments and in November 1878 took him to court for libel. Although Whistler won the case, he was awarded a pittance — one farthing in damages. With this legal slap in the face and faced with huge lawyers’ fees Whistler found himself in dire financial straits.

James McNeill Whistler 'San Giorgio' from the 'Venice set' 1879–80 intaglio print, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia James McNeill Whistler 'San Giorgio' from the 'Venice set' 1879–80 intaglio print, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

As a result Whistler faced bankruptcy with debts of £4550 and was stripped of his assets by the bailiffs. The ignominy of the whole experience and the damage to his reputation as an artist took its toll. His solution to avoid financial disaster was to make plans to travel to Venice — the city that had inspired so many artists and whose palaces and seascapes were immortalised by the English artist JMW Turner in the first half of the 19th century, a painter Whistler had admired since he was a child.

Whistler intended to make some 20 etchings in Venice, which he hoped would bring him the artistic and financial success that the ‘French set’ and the ‘Thames set’ had done. But unfortunately, delayed by illness and the coldest winter for a long time, he missed his deadline of December 1879 to complete the Venetian series. Early in the following year, Whistler wrote to his sister-in-law, Nellie Whistler, Complaining that he still could not work successfully: ‘The cold has simply been quietly getting into my bones ... As to the etchings they are far away beyond the old ones — only I am barely able to touch a plate ... it is like ice ... No winter like this known for at least thirty years..3

Despite the difficult conditions Whistler set out to capture the essence of Venice. Just as he had for the ‘Thames set’, he depicted little-known haunts as well as familiar sites often from unusual Viewpoints. Whistler described his drawing methods in an account he gave to the Australian artist and printer Mortimer Menpes after returning from Venice. It was there, he believed, that the ‘secret of drawing’ had been revealed to him: ‘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, it 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’.4 Because he wanted to achieve great variation along with subtle inking, Whistler often applied the acid to the plate by dabbing it on with a feather, rather than immersing the plate in an acid bath. With deft inking of the plate, sometimes leaving a plate covered in a thin film of ink and not just in the etched lines, Whistler aimed for results that came to be described as ‘artistic printing’ and were characterised by uneven inking, delicate nuances and more painterly printing. But traditional etchers, including Whistler’s brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden, were highly critical of these innovations. The ‘Venice set’ was finally completed and exhibited in December 1880, twelve months late, to a generally favourable response. During his time in Venice Whistler had completed 60 etchings along with a large group of pastels. He later published a selection of a further 26 etchings that came to be known as the ‘Second Venice set’, printing them in variant states.

James McNeill Whistler 'Elinor Leyland' 1873 intaglio Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Collection of the National Gallery of Australia James McNeill Whistler 'The doorway' from the 'Venice set' 1879–80 intaglio print, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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Whistler’s scenes of Venice were criticised for his adoption of ‘picturesque’ compositions which included signs of everyday habitation and decay. This approach contrasted with Ruskin’s ‘ideal’ that edited out references to everyday life and the real state of decrepitude of some of the buildings, in favour of presenting an eternal and idealised city. Whistler’s Venice, however, would become the adopted interpretation of the next generation of artists who sought to capture the essence of the city. In 1909 his biographers Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell recounted that: ‘when two or three artists gather together of an evening at Florian’s, or the Quadri, or the Orientale, it is of Whistler they talk. When the prize student arrives and has sufficiently raved, they say, “Oh, yes, but you will have to do it better than Whistler!” when a new discoverer of the picturesque brags, Whistler’s old friends tell him of Whistler’s discovery of ‘a courtyard, you know, that no one has ever seen, a most wonderful courtyard, amazing!’5 During his career as an American artist abroad, Whistler drew on European historical traditions from the 17th century onwards: participating in emerging 19th-century movements such as French Realism and traversing ensuing developments to evolve a singular and influential aesthetic.

Whistler’s style and subject matter became inspirational for many important artists of his day, including Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Of particular consequence for these artists was the acceptance of the cityscape as an appropriate subject for art – and in the case of Monet, for his own observations of the River Thames and Venice.

Jane Kinsman
Senior Curator International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books

This essay is an abbreviated version of the curator’s introduction to An artist abroad: the prints of James McNeill Whistler published by the National Gallery of Australian to coincide with this exhibition.


1 Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Salon of 1859’, Art in Paris 1845-1862: reviews of salons and other exhibitions, translated by Jonathan Mayne, London: Phaidon Press, 1965, P. 200, quoted in Katharine A Lochnan Whistler’s etchings and the sources of his etching style 1855—1880, New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1988, p. 115.
2 John Ruskin, review of the summer exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, fors clavigera, 2 July 1877, quoted by James Anderson Rose Whistler’s solicitor in a writ dated 28 July 1877 issued against John Ruskin on the 19 November 1877, record no. 12077 at Library of Congress, Mss Division, Pennef -Whistler Collection, PWC.
3 James McNeil Whistler in correspondence with Nellie Whistler, January/February 1880, Glasgow University Library, MS Whistler W 681 published at record no. 06687 at
4 James McNeill Whistler, ‘in conversation with Mortimer Menpes. The secret of drawing’, Whistler on art: James McNeill Whistler: selected letters and writings, edited by Nigel Thorp, Manchester and Glasgow: Carcenet Press Ltd in association with the Centre for Whistler Studies, Glasgow university Library, 1994, document 24, p. 68.
5 ER and J Pennefl The life of James McNeill Whistler, Philadelphia: JB Lippincott Company; London: William Heinemann, 1909, vol. 1, p. 261.