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Whistler and His Circle in Venice


The Columbia Museum of Art celebrates springtime with an exhibition from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Commemorating the centennial of American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler's death, Whistler and His Circle in Venice explores the artist's journey to find the "Venice of Venetians," and how this brief period in Venice transformed his career.

The story of the expatriate's sojourn traces Whistler's fall from grace in critical circles of London, his bankruptcy and his triumphant return to London from Venice, in which he won wide recognition for his draftsmanship and extreme technical proficiency both as a painter and etcher. At the Columbia Museum of Art from May 1 through July 3, 2004, this exhibition marks a long-overdue examination of Whistler and his circle. The Corcoran exhibition explores Whistler's considerable influence on his contemporaries and followers and the subsequent impact of his fresh vision of Venice on generations of artists.

In 1879 Whistler was suffering from a lack of new patrons resulting from adverse publicity, in part due to critical reviews, as well as financial insolvency due to a lawsuit in which he sued John Ruskin for a public insult of his work. Under these circumstances Whistler readily accepted a commission in September 1879 from the Fine Arts Society in London to produce a set of 12 Venetian etchings over a period of three months. Whistler was to fall in love with the city -- the long vistas and back alleys, the quiet canals and the isolated squares. He stayed on for 14 months producing over 50 etchings and subsequently achieved a high reputation as an etcher. On returning to England, these etchings and pastels re-established Whistler's artistic reputation and marked a turning point in his career. Although critics remained divided due to Whistler's modernist approach, contemporary artists embraced the freshness of his vision.

While in Venice, Whistler worked in a variety of media, including etching, oil and pastel. Whistler worked incredibly quickly and his 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.

Whistler and His Circle in Venice features 50 intimate etchings -- 20 by Whistler -- and also includes the work of Whistler's circle: Otto Bacher, Charles Holloway, Mortimer Menpes, James McBey, Frank Duveneck, Joseph Pennell, Ernest Roth and John Marin. In addition, the exhibition features six etchings by Canaletto from 18th century Venice.

"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 exhibition curator 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."

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 patrons 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 15 months he spent in Venice marked the first time Whistler developed a circle of followers.



Whistler and His Circle in Venice is organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The exhibition and its companion catalogue are supported by the Arthur Ross Foundation; Mrs. Martha Ann Healy; the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation; and Mr. and Mrs. George T. Johnson.

The Columbia presentation is sponsored, in part, by the City of Forest Acres. The State is the official media sponsor for the exhibition.



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 artists' interactions throughout their careers, and "Whistler's Followrs" traces Whistler's influence on later artists; and 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.



Friday, April 30
6:00 - 9:00pm
Lecture at 7:00pm by Atlanta Whistler scholar, Linda Merrill Cash bar.
May 19 - July 25 (Focus Gallery 1) and May 1 - July 3 (Focus Gallery 4)
Portraits of James McNeill Whistler from the James T. McLaren Collection
These portraits of Whistler from Columbia, S.C. collector James McLaren include etchings by James McNeill Whistler, Mortimer Menpes and Joseph Pennell.
Saturday, May 1
Noted Atlanta Whistler scholar, Linda Merrill presents. Free courtesy of Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Sunday, May 9
Exploring the Art of Venetian Architecture
Katherine Bentz, visiting assistant professor in Renaissance studies, Emory University presents the renowned Renaissance buildings that define the Venetian cityscape and have inspired artists for centuries.
Friday, May 21
FILM - Whistler: An American in Europe
Follow Whistler's career from his time in 19th-century Paris to his noted court battle with the art critic John Ruskin. The film visits Whistler's impressionist Nocturnes, and his connections with Corbet, Monet and the Pre-Raphaelites. (27 minutes)
Saturday, June 5
GALLERY TALK - Whistler and His Circle in Venice
Mary Robinson, visiting assistant professor in printmaking at USC.
Sunday, June 6
2:00 - 3:30pm
A demonstration of printmaking techniques in the McMaster building at USC. Visiting professor Mary Robinson discusses a variety of media and guides participants as they create an etching.
Friday, June 11
FILM - The Gentle Art of Making Enemies
This film tells the story of Whistler's life through his paintings accompanied by the music of Claude Debussy. (50 min.)
Friday, June 25
FILM - Ruskin's Journey: Teaching People to See
Follow art critic John Ruskin's path through Europe, visiting the places that loomed large for the writer. (48 minutes)

Editor's note: RLM readers may also enjoy these articles:

In October, 2007 Barbara Hazeltine photographed the following scenes in Venice which may be of interest to readers: All photos © Barbara Hazeltine 2007

(above: Grand Canal in Venice, October, 2007 © Barbara Hazeltine 2007)

(above: Gondoliers in Venice, October, 2007 © Barbara Hazeltine 2007)

Volunteer photographs can be sent by email to TFAO for adding to the editor's notes of previously published Resource Library articles and essays. Click here for details.

rev. 1/8/08


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