Although he is most famous for his portrait of his mother, artist James
Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903) is also acknowledged as
the finest etcher since Rembrandt.
The Etchings and Drypoints of James McNeill Whistler, on view at the
Taft Museum December 3, 1999, through January 23, 2000, includes 40
prints by America’s most famous expatriate artist and places the
Museum’s world-renowned oil painting, At the Piano, 1858–59, in the
context of the artist’s graphic career.
This exhibition is sponsored by the Oliver Family Foundation.
While Whistler’s paintings were often subjected to harsh criticism, his
printed work garnered him a reputation as a premier etcher, says Taft
Museum Chief Curator David T. Johnson. The great variety of styles
found in his etched work shows him to be a printmaker of great integrity
who never ceased to search for new variations on old themes.
The son of an engineer, Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but
his family moved in 1843 to St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father was
involved in building a railroad to Moscow for Czar Nicholas I.
After a childhood marred by poor health, Whistler returned to the United
States in 1849. He entered West Point Military Academy in 1851 but was
dismissed in 1854 for deficiencies in conduct and chemistry.
He then worked for the U.S. Coastal Survey in Washington, D.C., making
drawings and etched maps of the American coastline. Whistler’s
experiences with etching reinforced his decision to devote himself to art.
In 1855 he settled in Paris, where he entered the studio of the neoclassical
painter Charles Gleyre (Swiss, 1808–1874). While in France Whistler was
influenced by the controversial realism of Gustave Courbet (French,
1819–1877), who maintained it was an artist’s right to paint portraits and
genre scenes of the lower classes without idealization and on the large
scale formerly reserved for royalty or aristocracy.
Whistler roamed the streets of Paris making images on the prepared
etching plates that he kept in his coat pockets. He produced a portfolio
titled Twelve Etchings from Nature, also referred to as the “French Set,”
in which he illustrated daily life and the delineation of light.
After moving to London in 1859, he began work on a group of etchings
examining the Thames River and its commercial life, which was published
in 1869 as Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other
In all Whistler produced nearly 450 prints, both those that were published
in these two sets and many more documenting his trip to Venice in 1879,
scenes of the English countryside, and views from excursions to Holland
Notable pieces in the exhibition include The Music Room, 1859, which is
set in the same domestic interior as the Museum’s At the Piano, and
Black Lion Wharf, 1859, an etching from the “Thames Set” that can be
seen in the background of Whistler’s famous Arrangement in Grey and
Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother, 1871 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris).
Unsafe Tenement, about 1858, a view of an Alsatian farm that Whistler
produced on his walking journey from Paris to Cologne, Germany, shows
a close affinity to the etchings of Rembrandt. A self-portrait of the artist,
Title Page to the French Set 1858, could be considered a loose
interpretation of a well-known Rembrandt etching, Self-Portrait Drawing
at a Window, 1648.
This exhibition is circulated from the Syracuse University Art Collection.
Fine Arts Fund partner is American Financial Group & Related Entities.
The brochure is underwritten by the Docents of the Taft Museum with
support from Deluxe Engraving.
The official radio partner is 1530 WSAI, Cincinnati’s original hits station.