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"Etchings and Drypoints of James McNeill Whistler"
1999-12-03 until 2000-01-23
Taft Museum
Cincinnati, OH, USA United States of America

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 Subjects.

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 and Belgium.

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.

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