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Whistler and His Circle in Venice

February 8 - May 5, 2003


Commemorating the centennial of James Abbott McNeill Whistler's death, Whistler and His Circle in Venice explores the artist's struggle to find the "Venice of Venetians," and traces Whistler's considerable influence on his contemporaries and followers. Starting in September 1879, Whistler spent fifteen months living and working in Venice, Italy, seeking to depict more than the traditional popular tourist views of the city. Whistler's pastels, etchings, drawings and oil paintings, as well as those of his followers, reveal the artists' desire to delve deeper into Venetian culture. On view at the Corcoran from February 8 through May 5, 2002, this exhibition marks a long-overdue examination of Whistler and his circle.

"Whistler's Venetian work is remarkable not only for its extraordinary aesthetic appeal but also for its impact on generations of later artists who represented Venice," notes Eric Denker, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. "For instance, Whistler was the first artist to paint monumental non-tourist sites in Venice; John Singer Sargent also adopted that practice. Whistler also chose not to reverse his prints because he wished them to be viewed as works of art, not tourist souvenirs. Likewise, Joseph Pennell, John Marin, Ernest Roth and others did not reverse their images." (left:  James A. McNeill Whistler, San Giorgio [Maggiore, Venice], ca. 1880, pastel and charcoal or black pastel on brown paper, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Bequest of James Parmelee.)

Whistler and His Circle in Venice features more than 120 works, including a substantial selection of etchings, pastels, watercolors and a small collection of oil paintings. The second part of the exhibition highlights the work of Whistler's circle: John Singer Sargent, Otto Bacher, Mortimer Menpes, Robert Blum, Frank Duveneck, Joseph Pennell, John Marin and Alfred Stieglitz. Whistler and His Circle in Venice is organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

While in Venice, Whistler worked in a variety of media, including etching, oil and pastel. Whistler's etchings, while mirror images, are simple and direct, thereby eliminating all extraneous details. For example, Whistler's print, The Piazzetta, relies on broad outlines to define the Venetian scene, without including unnecessary details, such as the upper part of the column of St. Mark. (left: James A. McNeill Whistler, The Piazzetta, 1880, etching and drypoint, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Watson Webb in memory of Mr. and Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer.)

When working in pastel, Whistler typically sketched the rough outlines of the scene in charcoal on light brown paper. Whistler then returned to his studio to make a more detailed image and to add mosaic-like pastel.

"Whistler worked incredibly quickly, creating wonderful jewels of color in a remarkably short amount of time," comments Denker. "Whistler's use of bright colors echoes the Venetian tradition of color-encrusted mosaic surfaces."

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but lived in Russia during his youth and in Europe for all of his adult life. Whistler often courted controversy, most notably with his early patron Frederick Leyland, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde. The work Whistler produced while in Venice rehabilitated his reputation and career, and re-established Whistler as a leading artist. The fifteen months he spent in Venice marked the first time Whistler developed a circle of followers.



The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, will present a concurrent installation of Whistler's pastels from the museum's permanent collection.



Produced by Merrell Publishers (London), a fully illustrated, comprehensive catalogue accompanies the exhibition. The catalogue features four essays, three by Eric Denker: "Whistler in Venice" explores the artist's Venetian period; "Whistler and Sargent" examines the two artists' interactions throughout their careers, and "Whistler's Followers" traces Whistler's influence on later artists; an additional essay by Kenneth Myers, curator of American Art at the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, details Charles L. Freer's acquisition of Whistler's pastels. The Catalogue is supported by generous grants from Mrs. Martha Ann Healy, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, and Mr. and Mrs. George T. Johnson.


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