Editor's note: The following article is rekeyed and reprinted with permission of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The article first appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Corcoran Views. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact the Corcoran Gallery of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Whistler and His Circle in Venice

by Eric Denker


In September of 1879, American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) arrived in Venice with a commission from the Fine Arts Society in London to produce a set of prints over a period of three months. In the end, he remained in Venice not just for a season, but for fourteen months. During his time in the city, Whistler completed more than fifty prints, a handful of paintings and approximately one hundred pastels. On returning to England, these etchings and pastels re-established Whistler's artistic reputation and marked a turning point in his career.

Commemorating the centennial of Whistler's death, Whistler and His Circle in Venice focuses on the works he produced while in Venice. The Corcoran exhibition explores how one brief period transformed Whistler's career and the subsequent impact his new vision of Venice had on generations of artists.

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. Among his most delightful images, the etchings play a central role in understanding Whistler's technical and compositional innovations as well as his contributions to the history of printmaking. The second part of the exhibition documents Whistler's impact on his contemporaries and subsequent generations of artists, highlighting the work of John Singer Sargent, Otto Bacher, Mortimer Menpes, Robert Blum, Frank Duveneck, Joseph Pennell, John Marin and Alfred Stieglitz, among others.

The story of Whistler in Venice is the tale of his fall from grace, his exile and his triumphant redemption. In 1879, Whistler was reeling from financial insolvency and a lack of new patrons resulting from adverse publicity. The Fine Arts Society in London commissioned him to go to Venice for three months and to etch twelve plates, returning in time for the December holiday sales. Under the circumstances, Whistler readily accepted this escape to Venice.

Overwhelmed by the incredible visual riches of the city, Whistler wrestled with the subject matter of Venice. His goal was to develop an approach to the city that would distinguish his work from the anecdotal sentimentality of established Victorian imagery. Avoiding subjects such as architectural landmarks and large-scale figural scenes, Whistler instead focused on a Venice that was known to contemporary Venetians -- the long vistas, the back alleys, the quiet canals and the isolated squares. Coupled with his predilection for detailing only the important elements of the design, while leaving the marginal areas incomplete, Whistler's new view of Venice produced works of startling modernity.

Whistler left Venice in November 1880, returning to London where he immediately printed twelve etchings. The initial exhibition of the Venetian prints opened in a small back room at the Fine Arts Society on December 1, 1880. The show was well-publicized in the daily periodicals and art journals of the time and while critics remained divided on Whistler's etchings and pastels, contemporary artists quickly embraced the freshness of his vision.

Many artists emulated the example of the American expatriate, some in acquiring his approach, others in adapting the nuances of his economic style. John Singer Sargent was only one of the many artists with whom Whistler came into contact while living in Venice. Sargent's early watercolors of Venice, such as the Corcoran's Campo dei Frari, echo Whistler's interest in capturing the texture of everyday Venetian life rather than the familiar, monumental sites.

Even in the aftermath of his death, Whistler's vision of Venice continued to resonate through the succeeding generations of artists. John Marin, for instance, arrived in Venice for a six-week stay in April of 1907. Marin's prints are clearly dependent on the precedent of Whistler's Venetian style and subjects. His etching of the Campiello San Rocco, newly
acquired for the Corcoran's collection, was executed from the foot of the Ponte San Rocco; Whistler completed a pastel of the exact same subject in 1879-80.

Whistler's approach to Venetian subjects also had an important influence on photography. The American photographer Alfred Stieglitz admired Whistler's work and took an interest in his re-definition of Venetian subjects. Stieglitz visited Italy in the summer of 1887 and returned to Venice seven years later in 1894. His photographs of this period demonstrate a clear understanding of Whistler's interest in the picturesque canals and abstract formal elements of Venice. In several cases, the Stieglitz photographs bear an uncanny resemblance to Whistler's formats and presentation.

While in Venice, Whistler captured the flavor of the city in an unprecedented way, significantly affecting his contemporaries and later generations of image makers who sought to describe modern Venice for themselves. In the end, it was Whistler's expressive vocabulary and his exquisite sense of design that informed his Venetian work and that remain remarkably fresh a hundred years after the artist's death.


About the author

Eric Denker is the Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

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