James Abbott McNeill Whistler

An original James Abbott McNeill Whistler Etching.


Original etching and drypoint printed in black ink on heavy wove paper.

Signed in the plate with the butterfly monogram to the left of the dark doorway.

A superb, richly printed early, untrimmed proof impression of Glasgow’s fourth state of thirteen, Kennedy’s fourth state of six. printed after the addition of the old man on the steps, the two figures in the shadow of the doorway behind him and the gondola with gondolier in the canal to the far right, but prior to the addition of the large hat to the figure of the child to the right of the doorway, with touches of burr and a delicate plate tone throughout, apart from the edition originally announced as 100 (of which there are only 54 known to have been printed). Published by the Fine Art Society, London, 1880, in the series Venice, Whistler. Twelve Etchings, commonly referred to as the “First Venice Set”.

Catalog: Kennedy 193 iv/vi; Glasgow 221 iv/xiii; Mansfield 190; Grolier Club 160; Wedmore 158.

Platemark: 7 15/16 x 11 7/16 inches Sheet size: 11 1/4 x 15 1/2 inches

Whistler’s Venetian etchings are one of the greatest achievements of his art. He went to Venice in late 1879, but he had been planning a visit since 1876. His cataclysmic financial state had delayed the trip, however, until a commission, and a check from the Fine Art Society in September 1879 enabled him to go with the purpose of making 12 etchings.

In Venice Whistler continued to explore the themes and variations which had preoccupied him for years, demonstrating the consistency of his formal concerns. While his subjects are attractive and capture the feeling of the city, he was not interested in subject as an end in itself. Upon close examination it appears that his interest lay in the more purely abstract elements of the composition, and that the subject played an increasingly incidental role. This was anticipated in the portrait “arrangements” of the 1870’s, and in the decoration for the “Peacock Room.” In his pamphlet Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room of 1877, Whistler maintained that the peacock motif was only a “means” of carrying out a formal arrangement in gold on blue and blue on gold.

Looked at in this context, the Venice etchings can be divided into groups, each of which explores a similar theme with formal variations, and can be seen as the logical outgrowth of Whistler’s early work in the medium.

Whistler continued to explore the decorative and spatial possibilities of figures in doorways which he had first explored in 1858. This idea was extended the following year to include a succession of doorways and courtyards. In Venice he used the magnificent arched doorways with their cast iron grillwork and mysterious inner spaces to great advantage, as well as the narrow covered passageways which link the calli and often open into canals.

In 1996 in his Print Quarterly article “The Sites of Whistler’s Venice Etchings,” Alastair Grieve has located this image at a complex spot east of the Rialto Bridge where three sestieri (districts) of the city conjoin. Whistler’s main focus is on the dimly lit arched doorway where an old man is engaged in unexplained activity. A gondolier rows away around the corner, along the Rio de la Fava, while another approaches, having just past under the Ponte San Antonio.