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.
When the artist arrived in England in the 1850s, he spent time with his brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden, who was considered a prominent force in the revival of etching in England because of his dedication to the craft. Haden helped found the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. His work was published in Paris by Alfred Cadart, who ran a gallery for etchers that included works by Impressionists Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet. Etchings were an affordable art form for the middle class, and with well-known artists treating the medium as fine art, prints became the rage. The Cadart Gallery, an etching by Adolphe Martial Potémont, depicts throngs of Parisians lining up to buy prints from the gallery.
“I put that print in the show to show that the etching revival was underway by the time Whistler came over to Paris,” Bell told Pasatiempo. “Cadart never published Whistler’s prints. He published a lot of Haden’s prints.” Included in the section that covers Whistler’s years in France is a self-portrait dating to 1859, possibly the artist’s first self-portrait done as an etching. Some of Whistler’s work from the late 1850s was published as a collection called The French Set; six examples from this series are included in the exhibit — genre scenes in which Whistler chose the underprivileged lower classes and old tenement housing as his subjects. His friends and acquaintances in Paris included Impressionists Camille Pissaro, Mary Cassatt, and the early modernist Auguste Rodin. Examples of their etchings are included in the exhibit.
Whistler’s work clearly affected the etchings of other artists. After his return to England in the late 1850s, he followed the publication of The French Set with a series of etchings of the Thames, published individually at first, and then as a set. These were among the works praised by Pennell for Whistler’s handling of line. Whistler’s Thames images clearly show how line is used economically to suggest a setting on the water without the need for fine detail and also to suggest tonal ranges. Douglas Ian Smart’s etchings of the Thames, made much later, show Whistler’s influence in terms of style and subject matter.
Whistler’s Nocturnes, a series that included nighttime scenes of the Thames, shows the impact of Japanese woodblock printing on the artist’s work. Nocturne in Blue and Gold — Old Battersea Bridge, a color lithograph made by a cataloger of Whistler’s named Thomas Robert Way from an original pastel by Whistler, shows the innovative use of flecked paint to portray harbor lights and fireworks that characterized Whistler’s style at the time. It was, in part, this approach to material that led artist and critic John Ruskin to write in a published letter, “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler responded to the criticism by suing Ruskin for libel. He won the case but was only awarded a farthing, worth about one fourth of a penny, in damages.
The case ruined him financially and rendered his Nocturnes unmarketable. He was lampooned in popular magazines, including Punch, a weekly British magazine of humor and satire that ran a woodcut of the Whistler/Ruskin trial depicting the artist with whistles for legs. A caricature by Leslie Ward, done as a lithograph in 1878 for Vanity Fair and titled A Symphony, shows the effete, monocled artist with a long cigarette in his hand — an image of the man that became indelible. Despite the setback caused by the trial, Whistler would recover. “He recovered by getting an advance from the Fine Art Society, [which] told him it would pay him to do 12 etchings of Venice,” Bell said. “He stayed for just about a year, and he did many more etchings and pastels. He had a show as soon as he got back. The etchings were criticized as being unfinished. A couple of months later, he showed the pastels, which were very successful.”
The Venice etchings, like his earlier work, contain a lot of white space that reads as water and sky. Whistler added just enough detail to render a complete scene using the subtlest of form to suggest architecture and movement on the calm waters of the Venice canals. Younger etchers followed suit, including Pennell, Hedley Fitton, and James McBey, all of whom are represented in the exhibit. “You can see the stylistic influence,” Bell said. “The James McBey etching of Venice can be substituted for one of Whistler’s. It was almost done as a homage to Whistler.”
More than 90 prints are on view in Whistler and Company, making this a rare opportunity to see many prints by Whistler and other artists in one location. While Whistler was certainly a master of the etching medium, Pennell’s effusive praise amounts to idolatry. He positions Whistler as an artist who broke in on an existing scene and became its paragon. “Whistler and Rembrandt left no followers,” he writes. “They cannot be followed — that is, imitated — in their greatness.” Whistler and Company reveals that other artists did try to follow, but few achieved Whistler’s prominence. ◀
▼ Whistler and Company
▼ Exhibit continues through Jan. 4, 2014; tour by Robert Bell 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 30 (reservations required)
▼ Argos Studio/Gallery, 1211 Luisa St.
▼ No charge; 505-988-1814