The Frick Collection
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean, 1866, oil on canvas, The Frick Collection
Special Exhibition

Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean
Podcast | Video

Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland
Podcast | Video

Arrangement in Brown and Black: Portrait of Miss Rosa Corder
Podcast | Video

Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux
Podcast | Video

Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac
Podcast | Video

Portraits, Pastels, Prints: Whistler in The Frick Collection 
June 2 through August 23, 2009


Venetian Canal, 1880, pastel on brown paper

Pastels and Prints:
Whistler in Venice

In 1879 Whistler traveled to Venice to create a series of twelve etchings commissioned by the Fine Art Society in London. Beguiled by the city, he stayed for fourteen months instead of the allotted three and completed approximately fifty etchings. Venice’s luminous expanses of sky and sea also inspired Whistler to sketch some hundred landscapes in pastel, a medium he had previously reserved for portraits and figure studies.

Whistler’s challenge was to capture Venice’s ethereal beauty in a new way. In a letter of 1880 he declared: “I have learned to know a Venice in Venice that others never seem to have perceived . . . ” His pastels and etchings present the quiet streets and backwaters that lie beyond the Grand Canal, marking a deliberate departure from the tradition of vedute, majestic views of the city’s principal sites. As one scholar observed, Whistler aimed to capture “the essence of the crumbling city: its texture, its light, its distinctive enclosed calli [streets] and piazze [squares], and its unique ‘floating’ quality.” The artist carried pastel and etching materials with him as he explored the city. He would begin an etching by drawing with a needle on a copper plate covered with a waxy ground.

In his studio he applied acid to bite the exposed areas of copper, producing a matrix of lines to be inked and printed. To convey Venice’s unique light and atmosphere, Whistler enhanced his compositions with drypoint and plate tone. In drypoint the artist directly incises the plate with a fine tool, raising tiny curls of copper on either side of his lines. This metal burr holds a great deal of ink, and, in printing, the lines swell with velvety tone. Whistler left a film of ink on the surface (plate tone), wiping certain areas to create gradations of tone that evoke different conditions of light. He achieved similar atmospheric effects in pastel, fusing light, form, and vibrant color in seamless unity.

The prints in this section represent Whistler’s selection of twelve etchings, now called the First Venice Set, to fulfill the Fine Art Society commission. Though he had been charged to print one hundred impressions of each plate, Whistler treated each one as a unique work of art. He often made small changes to a plate between printings — creating different states of the composition — and varied the amount of plate tone. A small tab on each etching bears Whistler’s butterfly signature and the abbreviation “imp.” (impressit), indicating that the artist printed the impression himself.

View pastels in the exhibition | View etchings in the exhibition