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The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler from the Collection of Steven Block


The Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College will feature 86 lithographs by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), including three of his rare color proofs. Whistler turned to lithography after he had already established himself as a painter and etcher, and the poetic landscapes and portraits he produced in this last medium are the most spontaneous and intimate expression of his art. "The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler" from the Collection of Steven Block will be on display January 16 through February 27, 2002.

Whistler was an American-born painter and graphic artist, active mainly in England. He created flawless harmonies of tone and color in his paintings, and was equally skilled as a decorative artist, creating the Peacock Room for the London home of the Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland (now reconstructed in the Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C.), with decorative patterning that anticipated the Art Nouveau style.

Whistler's training as an artist began indirectly when, after his discharge from West Point Military Academy for "deficiency in chemistry," he learned etching as a U.S. navy cartographer. In 1855 be went to Paris to study art, and settled in London in 1859. Whistler soon made a name for himself through his talent and flamboyant personality. He was famous for his wit and dandyism, and loved controversy; his book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies laid out his aesthetic creed and opinions on art and society.

Whistler was a leading figure in the revival of lithography in the late 19th century, begun in Paris by Toulouse-Lautrec and Bonnard. When Whistler started his work in lithography in 1878 with Thomas Way, the respected London printer, both his finances and reputation were in serious disarray. He had quarreled with his patron, Frederick Leyland, over the Peacock Room decoration and had brought his infamous libel suit against John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the day. The expense of the trial led to Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879.

In the summer of 1888, Whistler married Beatrix Philip Godwin, widow of his architect-friend E.W. Godwin. Beatrix (or Trixie) was an amateur artist who encouraged whistler to work in lithography. Lithography became his major printmaking endeavor for almost eight years following his marriage, until Trixie's untimely death. However, his lithography never reached a mass audience; the nuanced, poetic world of his "nocturnes" and "harmonies" was completely alien to Victorian sensibility which expected art to tell a story, be morally uplifting, and record the natural world in minute detail.

Whistler's art was in many respects the opposite to his often aggressive personality, being discreet and subtle, but the creed that lay behind it was radical. He believed that art should exist for its own sake, and he often gave his pictures musical titles to suggest an analogy with the abstract art of music. Ironically, interest in Whistler's lithographs has recently increased over the last two decades.

Please also see our earlier illustrated article The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler from the Collection of Steven Block (8/3/00) covering an exhibition at The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Mitchell Art Gallery at St. John's College in Resource Library Magazine

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

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 11/28/11

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