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Whistler in Venice: The Pastels

Jan. 18 through June 15, 2003


When expatriate American artist James Mc Neill Whistler (1834­1903) went to Venice in 1879, he only intended to stay a short time in order to complete a commission for 12 etchings. Whistler fell in love with the city -- especially its backwater canals and decaying palazzos-and stayed for 14 months. There he created, among other things, a large number of pastels, some of which are housed at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art -- home to the most comprehensive collection of works by Whistler in the world.

"Whistler in Venice: The Pastels" is the first of three separate Whistler exhibitions to be held at the Freer during the year 2003, which marks the centennial of the artist's death. The show highlights 14 unusually beautiful and rare examples of these works, along with etchings and a watercolor. (left: James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834 - 1903), The Staircase, Note in Red, (A Venetian Courtyard), 1880, fabricated chalk on brown paper, 1881 Fine Art Society exhibition, #35, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.174)

Whistler preferred to work outdoors but the unusually cold winter of 1880 made holding an etching needle or painting en plein aire with oils or watercolors impractical. Pastels, however, were an ideal medium. Whistler completed 90 pastels while in Venice, describing them in a letter to his dealer as being "totally new and of a brilliancy very different from the customary watercolor."

"Whistler's Venice pastels mark an important moment in the history of the pastel as a medium for artistically serious work," says curator Kenneth Myers. Although pastels had been in use for over a hundreds years, by the beginning of the 19th century they were widely disparaged as a minor "feminine" medium best left to lady artists and hobbyists. The French artist Jean-François Millet (1814­1875) and other innovative landscape painters began to revive the medium around the 1850s. In comparison to most older and contemporary pastels, Whistler's Venetian pastels were strikingly sketchy, with large areas of paper left blank. Criticized by a conservative contemporary critic as "vaguely incoherent," the pastels are appealing to the modern eye. Whistler used color to indicate the magical effects of light on a Venice encased in winter.

In addition to pastels of Venice, this exhibition features:

* a pastel portrait of the artist and his brother William as children by Emile François Dessain (French, 1808­1882)
* an early pastel study Whistler made for "Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland"
* two Venice etchings
* a manuscript letter written by Whistler's mistress, Maud Franklin, describing the critical reception of the Venice pastels exhibition
* a copy of the exhibition catalog Whistler designed for the initial exhibition of his Venice pastels, held in London in 1881
* quotations from contemporary reviews

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