Drawing Basics: Whistler's Etchings of Venice on View This Summer

Many New York artists feel a sense of pride regarding The Frick Collection. The building that houses it on the Upper East Side is sometimes crowded but often not, and the effect is the sense that the visitor is experiencing a hidden treasure. This is enhanced by the feel of the museum itself; the building was originally the residence of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, and a modern-day visitor feels as though he or she is viewing Frick's personal art collection. And, most important, the collection is small but top notch.

It's always a good time to visit The Frick, if for no other reason than to stand in front of one of the museum's three Vermeers or Bellini's imposing St. Francis in the Desert, but this summer people in New York will have another great reason to stop by: the exhibition "Portraits, Pastels, Prints: Whistler in The Frick Collection," a gathering of the museum's Whistlers, spanning three media.

The impetus for this show may be the renovation of The Frick's East Gallery, where four large, full-length portraits by Whistler usually hang. These four oils join a group of pastels and a drawing masterpiece–Whistler's First Venice Set of 12 etchings–to constitute "Portraits, Pastels, Prints." Aside from being ravishing etchings, the First Venice Set was a crucial gig for Whistler. According to The Frick, by 1879 Whistler's fortunes had soured, and he sorely needed money when the Fine Arts Society, in London, commissioned him to complete a dozen etchings of Venice in three months–the organization wanted to issue them as a set in time for Christmas. Whistler finished the job superbly, modestly writing to his patrons, "I have learned to know a Venice in Venice that others never seem to have perceived." Perhaps the artist was referring to the fact that he didn't paint the vistas that most other artists depicted, focusing instead on shadowed doorways, narrow passageways, and other details that bewitched him. Although his assignment only required Whistler to stay in Venice for three months, he lingered for 14, cranking out 50 etchings and 100 pastels.

The reaction to the prints was lukewarm, but Whistler continued to alter the plates–despite the Fine Arts Society's wish to have the sets completed by Christmas 1880, the 100 sets weren't all printed until 1892. And despite Whistler's initial bravado, even he acknowledged that the final states of the plates were the best versions.


The Doorway by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1879, etching and drypoint drawing
The Doorway
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1879, etching and drypoint drawing,
11 1/2 x 7 7/8. The Frick Collection, New York, New York.
Photo: Michael Bodycomb
Part of the First Venice Set series.



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Bob Bahr

About Bob Bahr

Hi. I'm the managing editor of American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing, and Workshop magazines. Drawing magazine is primarily my responsibility so I spend a lot of time looking at drawings, talking with draftsmen, and drawing ... but I love to paint, too.

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