An artist abroad
the prints of James McNeill Whistler

25 March – 10 July 2005

introduction | Essay | Conservation | Gallery | The sets


James McNeill Whistler 'Elinor Leyland' 1873 intaglio Collection of the National Gallery of Australia James McNeill Whistler Elinor Leyland 1873 intaglio Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

James McNeill Whistler (born United States 1834) was a key figure in the European art world of the 19th century. Early in his career in Paris, Whistler had befriended some of the artists who were to dominate the French art scene, including Edvard Manet, Fantin-Latour and the writer, critic Charles Baudelaire. The influence of the French Realist tradition, along with Rembrandt and the Dutch school are clearly apparent in the so called the French Set of 1858. A series of twelve beautiful etchings of figure studies and village scenes – it was a remarkable testimony to a talented young artist. The stylistic development over the next twenty years saw Whistler move, however to depicting the more ethereal rather than the everyday.

Whistler then went on to produce an evocative series of sixteen etchings of the Thames and its surrounds: its people, its haunts – the land, water and cityscapes. While living in England, Whistler became embroiled in legal proceedings with the noted artist and aesthetician John Ruskin. In reference to Whistler’s unconventional Nocturne paintings Ruskin accused him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. Incensed Whistler took him to court for libel in November 1878. Though Whistler won the case, he was awarded a pittance - one farthing in damages. With this legal slap in the face and faced with huge lawyer’s fees Whistler he was in dire financial straits.

Whistler’s solution to avoid bankruptcy in mid-life was to set off for Venice to spend many months working on a commission making etchings of the city whose palaces and seascapes were made famous by JMW Turner. This first set of etchings, known as the Venice set along with a later Venice series are notable for their beautiful painterly, poetic qualities – sublime visions rather than depictions of the everyday.

Japanese art, particularly the tradition of the ukiyo-e woodblock print was particularly influential in this transition, providing an aesthetic basis for Whistler’s composition, such as asymmetry, languid or delicate poses, unusual viewpoints, genre subjects, rich patterning and linear qualities and a concern for special Japanese papers. Whistler’s great admiration for the Venetian Masters also shaped his growing interest in creating impressionist city and seascapes, or moody figure studies.