Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music.
But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful – as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.
J.A. Whistler, “Ten O’Clock” lecture
James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s innovative compositions and inflammatory artistic proclamations helped establish the doctrine of modern art. Indeed, he famously filed and won a libel suit in 1878 against art critic John Ruskin, who had accused him of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” when he showed his nearly abstract painting Nocturne In Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket in an 1877 exhibition at London’s Grosvenor Gallery. By the mid-1860’s, Whistler had become a leader of the Aesthetic movement which emphasized the formal elements of art over subject matter.
A prolific artist, Whistler produced over 500 paintings and nearly 700 prints. He particularly embraced the etching medium, which offered him the opportunity for compositional experimentation. He could sketch ideas quickly, then refine and develop them through multiple states and create variations with expressive inking and wiping. He etched en plein air, imbuing his subjects with a sense of spontaneity. The popularity of his prints ushered in an “etching revival” and strongly influenced other heralds of the medium such as Charles Meryon and Francis Seymour Haden. In his early etchings, Whistler was particularly indebted to Rembrandt, whose prints he studied in 1858-9 while staying in London with Haden. Haden’s Old Master collection fascinated Whistler, and the influence of Rembrandt is particularly evident in his 1858 French Set, printed by Delâtre. Throughout his career as a printmaker, Whistler returned to depictions of scenes from everyday life, the use of chiaroscuro and contrast, and the incorporation of doorways and archways as framing devices, all referencing the Dutch master.
In 1878 Whistler began experimenting with lithography under the printer Thomas Way and returned to the medium late in his career. Invented at the end of the 18th century, lithography had become the preferred method of commercial printing. In the mid-19th century artists appropriated the medium for their original work. Whistler’s skill in drawing and pastel applied easily to the transfer method, in which an image is drawn on paper and then transferred to the stone. He especially appreciated the soft, blended, sketch-like quality the greasy lithographic crayon afforded and referred to his lithographs as “songs on stone.”
Whistler’s devotion to overall harmony in his works extended even to his signature. The artist invented a distinctive monogram, a stylized butterfly with an elongated thorax based on his initials, and placed it deliberately as a compositional element, not just a maker’s mark. This is especially evident in the Nude Reclining pastel on view here, in which Whistler’s butterfly, touched by pastel, hovers above the sleeping figure. Whistler even cut down the margins of some prints and left only a small tab with his penciled butterfly, an action often misperceived as having been performed by dealers and collectors. This memorable mark aligned with Whistler’s ambitions to establish his unique public image and reinforced his status as a leader in the artistic movement of the day. In this exhibition, we are pleased to present a selection of Whistler’s works on paper, highlighting in particular the breadth of his work in printmaking and his skill in lithography and intaglio mediums.
“James McNeill Whistler.” NGA Systematic Catalogue. National Gallery of Art. https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1974.html.
“Whistler as Printmaker: Highlights from the Gertrude Kosovsky Collection.” www.frick.org. The Frick Collection. https://www.frick.org/press/whistler_printmaker_highlights_gertrude_kosovsky_collection.
McPhee, Constance C. “James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) as Etcher.” metmuseum.org. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2015. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/whet/hd_whet.htm.
Taube, Isabel L. Whistler as Printmaker: His Sources and Influence on His Followers. Brunswick, ME: Bowdoin College, 1993.
Weinberg, H. Barbara. “James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903).” metmuseum.org. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2010. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/whis/hd_whis.htm.