Taft Museum

photo by Tony Walsh


Cincinnati, Ohio

(513) 241-0343


The Etchings and Drypoints of James McNeill Whistler


Although he is probably 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. (left: The Music Room, c. 1859,etching on laid paper, Collection of Syracuse University Art Collection, gift of Cloud Wampler)

"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.

"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 and is sponsored by the Oliver Family Foundation.

See also...

James McNeill Whistler and the Etching Revival (9/15/99)

Whistler: Impressions of an American Abroad, Etchings and Lithographs (1/13/99)

James McNeill Whistler Etchings & Lithographs at The Cummer (1/5/99)

Whistler in Venice (12/8/98)

The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler (7/22/98)

Whistler: Impressions of an American Abroad - Etchings and Lithographs (3/10/98)

Read more about the Taft Museum in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 11/22/10

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