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The Venice Sets

In September 1879, after the frenzy of the Ruskin Trial and his resulting bankruptcy, Whistler went to Venice with a commission from the Fine Art Society of London to create a set of twelve etchings of that city. His career in ruins, it was this commission that would turn his fortunes around. The assignment was to take place over a brief three-month period. Whistler’s stay in Venice stretched to fourteen, during which time he created both the original dozen etchings, known as the First Venice Set, and a second series, known as the Second Venice Set.

Whistler claimed to have “learned a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived.” And, indeed, his subject matter did differ from the expected sentimental views in high demand from the Victorian tourist. He wanted to develop his own approach to the city, much like he had done in London with the Thames Set.

"The Doorway," 1879/1880, Etching and drypoint on paper, Rosenwald Collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Art

"Quiet Canal," 1879/1880, Etching and drypoint on paper, Rosenwald Collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Ar

"The Palaces," 1879/1880, Etching and drypoint on paper, Rosenwald Collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Art

"The Riva, No.1," 1879/1880, Etching and drypoint on paper, Rosenwald Collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Art

"The Little Lagoon," 1879/1880, Etching and drypoint on paper, Rosenwald Collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Art

"Nocturne" (Venice), 1879/1880, Etching and drypoint on paper, Courtesy Library of Congress

"Nocturne" (Venice), Cancelled Plate, 1879/1880, Etching and drypoint on copper, Courtesy Library of Congress

Click on image to advance the slides.

The compositional motifs that had interested Whistler in his previous etchings were archways, doorways, and balconies. In Venice, he found similar enclosures and, of course, bridges. He found many original examples of these deep inside the twisting canals of the city known by many as “La Serenissima.”

Whistler’s technique changed again in Venice. His lines are much thinner than those in his earlier etchings and the compositions unlike anything seen before — often impressions or moods suggested by only a few masterfully etched lines. Whistler worked and reworked the copper plates until he was satisfied, creating many states of the same image, always with a different result. A major technical development Whistler achieved was with the inking of the plate. Whistler’s breakthroughs in the inking process allowed him to show gradations of light and changes in the surface of water. Printing the Venice etchings required Whistler’s own hand or close supervision and occupied much of his attention both while he was in Venice and once he returned to London.

Whistler’s Etchings: Re-Working of A Single Copper Plate from Karen Thomas on Vimeo.

Once Whistler did return to London, his etchings were displayed at two separate exhibitions at the Fine Art Society. At the second, in 1886, Whistler staged a show of 51 etchings called Arrangement in White and Yellow. Whistler’s transformation of the gallery included covering the furniture with yellow fabric, laying yellow matting on the floor, covering the walls with white felt and using white frames for the pictures. Yellow fabric diffused light from the skylight, the skirting board and chair rail were painted yellow, and the attendant wore yellow and white livery. The décor was talked about for years but the hanging of the prints was what was truly revolutionary. They were all hung at eye level, widely spaced in a single row. It not only marked Whistler’s return to the center of London’s art world. Arrangement in White and Yellow influenced exhibition design well into the 20th-Century.

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