James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American, Lowell, Massachusetts 1834 - 1903 London
Little Venice (plate 1 , Venice. Whistler. Twelve Etchings ["First Venice Set"], 1881)
Mansfield 180; Kennedy 183 (only state), 1880
Signed in plate with butterfly monogram1
Plate: 7 1/4 x 10 1/2 in. (18.4 x 26.6 cm)
sheet: 9 5/8 x 13 3/16 in. (24.5 x 33.4 cm)
Gift of Mrs. F. F. Prentiss, 1944
Whistler sketched this evocative view of Venice on the copper etching plate from a vantage point on an island in the lagoon. A minimum of perfectly placed marks and selectively wiped plate tone transform the city into a delicate mirage floating in a sea of light.
In 1879, the Fine Art Society, a London gallery, commissioned Whistler to produce a set of twelve etched views of Venice, and advanced him the funds for a three-month trip to the city. Whistler left for Venice in September 1879 with his mistress Maud Franklin, and returned to London in November 1880, with fifty etchings, around one hundred pastels, and several paintings. In December 1880, twelve of these etchings were exhibited at the Fine Art Society under the title Venice. Whistler. Twelve Etchings. This group of prints became known as the "First Venice Set."2
Drawn to Venice by his love of Turner's Venetian paintings (see View of Venice: The Ducal Palace, Dogana, and Part of San Giorgio, AMAM inv. 44.54) and John Ruskin's Stones of Venice (1851-53), Whistler was challenged by the desire to do something original with what was, by 1880, a much-worked subject of both great iconic images and hackneyed tourist art. He soon wrote back to his sponsors in London that he had come "to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived..."3 Many of the prints in the First Venice Set depict unexpected views of backwater canals and anonymous doorways and balconies (The Doorway, Kennedy 188); others present the familiar monuments within an oblique focus on the living crowds surrounding them (The Piazzetta, Kennedy 189, AMAM inv. 79.19).
A third group of images is comprised of daylight 4 and nocturnal 5 views in which the city seems to float on the water. Little Venice, the most successful of the daytime views, includes such famous and recognizable sites as the Public Gardens on the left, Santa Maria della Salute, and the campanile and dome of San Giorgio Maggiore. Yet the scene is presented in reverse--Whistler drew what he saw directly on the plate; in printing the image is reversed--and the buildings are reduced to vertical punctuation marks on a narrow horizontal strip. The real subject of the image is the light-filled Venetian sky and the watery expanse between Venice and the island on which Whistler stood. Above and below the city the sheet is ostensibly empty, except for lightly indicated, exquisitely placed pilings, gondolas, building reflections, and, most prominently, the Whistler butterfly signature, in the water; and a few scribbled clouds in the sky.
Although Whistler selected Little Venice as the first plate in the set exhibited in 1880, the print was actually one of the last to be etched and printed. As with all the prints in the set, Whistler drew on the prepared plate with an etching needle directly from nature, this time going by steamer to one of the small islands in the lagoon.6 However, he did not actually etch the plate until after his return to London in November 1880.7
Whistler himself printed all impressions of Little Venice.8 The Oberlin impression is an early proof,9 printed on what appears to be ledger paper (see Technical Data). It does not have the butterfly tab, nor is it cut to the platemark in the manner Whistler devised with the First Venice Set (as in the AMAM impression of The Piazzetta).10 The plate tone is heaviest at the extreme top and bottom of the image, and there are even fingerprints visible in the ink residue. Another early proof impression of Little Venice (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)11 uses plate tone along the sides and corners to frame the view, while the plate tone in other impressions printed by the artist ranges from minimal, to thin and luminous overall, to rich and dark.
The emptiness of Little Venice, as in all Whistler's panoramic Venetian views, derives from reductive compositions first explored in his painted Nocturnes of the 1870s, and possibly even earlier in an etching (Opposite the Inn, Purfleet, ca. 1869) by his brother-in-law, the printmaker Francis Seymour Haden.12 Although wiped in a different manner, Nocturne (the first print Whistler made in Venice) already includes the same narrow horizontal band between sky and water.13 Frederick Wedmore has also compared the "artistic motive" of Little Venice to that of View of Amsterdam (B. 210), by Rembrandt, an etcher greatly admired and much studied by Whistler.14
The simplified compositions and unique views, as well as the etching and printing techniques, of Whistler's Venetain etchings had enormous impact on later printmakers, painters, and photographers in Europe and America (see Stieglitz's A Bit of Venice).
J. S. Wilker
Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on 11 July 1834. From ages nine to fourteen, he lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father was working as a civil engineer; he began his art studies there at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. After the death of his father in 1849, the family moved back to America. Whistler attended the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1852-54 and then worked briefly for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, in Washington, D.C., where he learned to etch maps and topographical plans.
In 1855 Whistler went to Paris, where he studied at the Ecole Impériale Spéciale de Dessin, entered the studio of Charles Gleyre (1808-1874) in 1856, and copied paintings in the Louvre and Luxembourg museums. Forming many friendships with modern painters in both Paris and London, where he moved in 1859, Whistler's painting style was influenced by the realist work of Courbet and Manet, and the narrative painting of the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as the paintings of Vélasquez, Japanese decorative art and woodblock prints, and current optical theories. Whistler's paintings--small seascapes, landscapes, cityscapes, interiors, and mostly large-scale portraits--distill these varied influences into Nocturnes and Arrangements, luminous works whose subject lies primarily in the harmonious relationships of tone and color, rather than realistic description.
Whistler first became interested in printmaking when he encountered the prints of Hogarth and Rembrandt as a child in the home of his brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden. His own oeuvre as a printmaker is large, innovative, and highly influential. His first published portfolio of etchings--Twelve Etchings from Nature (the so-called "French Set," published in Paris in 1858 and in London in 1859) includes a somewhat eclectic group of images executed in London and rural France, as well as scenes of Parisian life. The next, more coherent set--A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects (the so-called "Thames Set")--is a rich portrait of the docks of the Thames as they existed in 1859. After making a few individual etchings in the early 1860s, Whistler stopped making prints until after the 1871 publication of the Thames Set. When he returned to etching, it was with a new-found sense of pictorial structure and tonalist vision, rather than the earlier attention to descriptive detail. The two Venice sets (drawn on the plates in 1879-80, see Main Text) that resulted are the apex of his printed oeuvre. Whistler went on to etch many individual prints in addition to the "Amsterdam Set" of 1889. He also learned lithography, making a series of lithotints in the 1870s and several sketchlike litho transfer prints (see Mother and Child, AMAM inv. 53.211) in the 1890s, including five ambitious color prints.
Whistler died in London on 17 December 1903.
General References (see also Catalogues Raisonnés in Literature)
Getscher, Robert H. "Whistler and Venice." Ph.D. diss., Case Western Reserve University, 1970.
Getscher, Robert H. The Stamp of Whistler. Exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1977.
Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer, and Hamish Miles. The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1980.
Lochnan, Katharine A. The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler. New Haven and London, 1994.
Dorment, Richard, and Margaret F. MacDonald. James McNeill Whistler. Exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London; Musée d'Orsay, Paris; and National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, 1995.
Collection Mrs. F. F. Prentiss, by whom bequeathed in 1944
Mansfield, Howard. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etchings and Dry-Points of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Chicago, 1909, no. 180.
Kennedy, Edward G. The Etched Work of Whistler. New York, 1910, no. 183, only state.
General Literature (mentioning print but not this impression)
Getscher, Robert H. The Stamp of Whistler. Exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1977, pp. 75-76, cat. no. 44.
Siewert, John. In Carole McNamara and John Siewert, Whistler: Prosaic Views, Poetic Visions. Exh. cat., The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1994, pp. 90-91, cat. no. 33.
This etching was printed in sepia-colored ink on ivory laid paper (watermark is D & C B L A U W (as in Churchill 82, 168, and 329, or Heawood 1828).15 There are faint brown ruled lines along the top and bottom margins, and on both sides of the sheet, unrelated to the print; it seems possible the sheet was taken from a ledger. The plate was horizontally wiped to produce an uneven plate tone, which is most pronounced at top and bottom. There are a few fingerprints in the tone along the bottom edge. There is an old fill in the top right corner of the sheet and along the upper margin. The sheet was cleaned and bleached in 1975. There are no collectors' marks or stamps.
1. Inscribed in graphite on the recto top left: 7; and on the verso: Little Venice/ Early trial proof of beautiful quality/perhaps the only one printed in this manner/with lines in the sky and foreground.
2. These twelve etchings were exhibited again, with Little Venice as number 20, along with twenty-six additional etchings (the "Second Venice Set"), at the Fine Art Society in 1883, under the title Etchings and Dry-points. Venice. Second Series. For a succinct review of the early exhibition and publication history of the two Venice sets, see Robert H. Getscher, The Stamp of Whistler (exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1977), pp. 20-21.
3. From a letter to Marcus Huish of the Fine Art Society, January 1880 (in the Glasgow University Library); quoted in Katharine A. Lochnan, The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler (New Haven and London, 1984), p. 184.
4. Besides Little Venice, Whistler included three daytime Venice views in the first exhibition: Long Lagoon (Kennedy 203), La Salute: Dawn (Kennedy 215), and Islands (Kennedy 222). He etched seven others, which were included in the second set: Little Lagoon (Kennedy 186), San Giorgio (Kennedy 201), Upright Venice (Kennedy 205), Long Venice (Kenney 212), Little Salute (Kennedy 220), Shipping Venice (Kennedy 229), and Venice (Kennedy 231).
5. The Venice night views include Nocturne (Kennedy 184) and Nocturne: Palaces (Kennedy 202), both in the First Venice Set. The varied inkings of these plates essentially resulted in a series of unique monotypes; see Katharine A. Lochnan, The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler (New Haven and London, 1994), pp/ 196-211.
6. The printmaker Otto Bacher worked with Whistler and recorded his etching technique in detail; see Otto Bacher, With Whistler in Venice (New York, 1908). The key text is reprinted in Robin Spencer, ed., Whistler: A Retrospective (New York, 1989), pp. 153-72.
7. Thomas R. Way, Memories of James McNeil Whistler (London, 1912), p. 45.
8. Whistler experimented with the aesthetic effects he could achieve by the way he inked and wiped the plates. His careful printing of the hundred sets originally commissioned by the Fine Art Society continued until 1901. The final proofs were pulled after his death by Frederick Goulding. See Katharine A. Lochnan, The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler (New Haven and London, 1984), p. 221; and Carole McNamara and John Siewert, Whistler: Prosaic Views, Poetic Visions (exh. cat., The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1994), p. 91, cat. no. 33, n. 6.
9. An inscription to this effect is written in an unknown (dealer's?) hand on the back of the sheet (see note 1 above).
10. This practice is described by John Siewert, in his catalogue entry in Carole McNamara and John Siewert, Whistler: Prosaic Views, Poetic Visions (exh. cat., The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1994), p. 91, cat. no. 33, and is illustrated in the Michigan impression of the print (inv. L122).
11. Reproduced in Carole McNamara and John Siewert, Whistler: Prosaic Views, Potetic Visions (exh. cat., The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor 1994), p. 91, under cat. no. 33, fig. 33a.
12. Noted by Robert H. Getscher, The Stamp of Whistler (exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1977), p. 75.
13. Noted by Robert H. Getscher, The Stamp of Whistler (exh. cat., Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1977), p. 95.
14. Reference noted by John Siewert, in Carole McNamara and John Siewert, Whistler: Prosaic Views, Poetic Visions (exh. cat., The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1994), p. 91, cat. no. 33, n. 4; Frederick Wedmore, Whistler's Etchings: A Study and a Catalogue, 2d ed. (London, 1899), p. 70.
15. W. A. Churchill, Watermarks in Paper in Holland, England, France, etc., in the XVII and XVIII Centuries and their Interconnection (Amsterdam, 1935); and Edward Heawood. Watermarks, Mainly of the 17th and 18th Centuries (London, 1950).