Since the world began there have only been two supreme etchers — Rembrandt and Whistler,” Joseph Pennell writes in his 1919 book Etchers and Etching. Pennell, an etcher and a friend and biographer of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), asserts that Whistler’s genius was in employing etching for the expression of ideas and impressions using a minimal number of lines. Etching is about line. If an artist uses fewer lines to convey a landscape or a portrait or a genre scene, every line must count and, as Pennell writes, “every bit of it has life and meaning and character.” Pennell is one of a number of Whistler’s contemporaries whose works are included in the exhibition Whistler and Company, on view at Argos Studio/Gallery through Jan. 4. The show draws from the extensive print collection of Robert Bell, an ophthalmologist and lecturer on fine art prints at New Mexico Highlands University. It is a chronologically arranged body of work that places Whistler amid a 19th-century etching revival and emphasizes his sphere of influence. Whistler and Company is Argos’ eighth in a series of historic print exhibits based on Bell’s collection.
The show covers Whistler’s early years as well as his time in France and England. It includes what is possibly Whistler’s earliest print, The Coast Survey Plate, a commissioned etching made for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, in which the inexperienced printmaker doodled in the margins of the plate. This act might have contributed to his dismissal from the project, which was intended as a series of etchings of coastal and topographical maps. But Maria Naylor, author of Etchings of James McNeill Whistler, writes that the dismissal was the result of his repeated absences from the job. Whistler, a native of Lowell, Massachusetts, was something of an irascible figure whose critics often became his enemies.
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