Introduction

The works in the exhibition are selected from a promised gift of forty-one prints and one pastel by James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), one of the greatest printmakers. Formed over five decades by Gertrude Kosovsky, with the support of her husband, Dr. Harry Kosovsky, the collection includes twenty-seven etchings and drypoints, fourteen lithographs, and one pastel. Over the years, the Kosovskys gave these works to their son, who continues to add to the collection and has promised it to The Frick Collection. This generous gift will greatly increase the Frick’s holdings of Whistler’s work on paper and place them in the context of his printmaking career.

Born in Massachusetts, Whistler left for Europe at the age of twenty-one and never returned. He had learned to etch during a brief period as a mapmaker and was intent on becoming an artist. Arriving in Paris in the mid-1850s, he was swept up in the Etching Revival. He embraced its methodology and made his sheets unique with his original subjects, technical virtuosity, idiosyncratic handling of the printing process, and selection of paper. A flamboyant, contentious, and charming character, Whistler would spend his entire career in Paris and London. Whistler earned recognition with his first published portfolio of etchings, known as the French Set, made up of streetscapes, genre scenes, and portraits. In London in 1859, he experimented further with etching techniques with his brother-in-law, Sir Francis Seymour Haden, a physician and etcher. At that time, he began a series depicting the decrepit docks and wharves on the Thames in East London; published with other works as the Thames Set in 1871, they further established his reputation. By this time, however, Whistler had abandoned his early realism for aestheticism, which stressed the formal elements of art over subject matter. During a fourteen-month period in Venice, on a commission from the Fine Art Society of London, Whistler etched fifty plates in an innovative manner. Carrying prepared plates with him, he sketched the scenes before him with his etching needle, and to these delicate skeins of line he added tone in the printing process. Published as the First Venice Set (1880) and the Second Venice Set (1886), these ethereal works are among his greatest achievements.

In 1878, Whistler experimented with lithography, returning to it in the late 1880s in a collaboration with the printer Thomas Way. He was encouraged in this medium by his wife, Beatrice Godwin, an artist herself. For the remainder of his life, Whistler continued to produce etchings and lithographs of unparalleled liveliness and invention, setting a new benchmark for future generations.

The Kosovsky collection includes examples from most of Whistler’s published editions, many from the Second Venice Set, which complements the First Venice Set already in the Frick’s holdings. The two collections overlap in one work, Nocturne, a tonal masterpiece of minimal line. In the exhibition, the Kosovsky impression is shown adjacent to the closely related pastel Sunset: Venice, the highlight of the promised gift. It will eventually join three other Venetian pastels purchased by Henry Clay Frick.