James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834 Lowell, Massachusetts – London 1903
etching and drypoint, printed in dark-brown ink on laid paper; 199 x 290 mm (7 13/16 x 11 7/16 inches)
signed with the butterfly and inscribed imp in pencil on the tab; signed again on the verso with the butterfly and inscribed selected proof and Ex –; another early pencil annotation verso: Marked by Whistler “selected proof ” and signed by him. His “Ex.” means extra fine.
Kennedy 184 fifth (final) state; Glasgow 222 ninth (final) state
Frederick Keppel & Co., New York (his code in pencil on the verso) Kennedy Galleries, New York (their stock no. in pencil on the verso a44254)
Robert H. Getscher, The Stamp of Whistler, exhibition catalogue, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1977–78, no. 59 Ruth E. Fine, Drawing Near: Whistler Etchings from the Zelman Collection, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1984–85, no. 59
The plate belonged to Whistler’s “First Venice Set,” published in 1880 by the Fine Art Society under the title Etchings of Venice. Such Venetian night scenes as this one reflect the artist’s long- standing preoccupation with the subject; one of his earliest etchings, Street at Saverne of 1858 (Kennedy 19), is just such a scene, and he continued to develop the theme in his paintings of the 1870s as well as in an 1878 lithograph, Nocturne: The River at Battersea (Spink/Stratis/Tedeschi 8).
Robert Getscher calls it “the most dramatic etching” in the “First Venice Set.” Due to a first-state impression at the University of Glasgow inscribed “Venice 1879” we know that the print must have been made within the first months after Whistler’s arrival in the city in September 1879.
As Ruth Fine notes, “Of all the Venice etchings, Nocturne is printed with the greatest kind of variation between impressions. Indeed, depending upon the quality of the tonal wiping, the time of day appears to range from dusk to midnight to dawn”. The etching work on the plate seems to have been finished in one stage; later developments in the image were to a large extent devised solely through the use of plate tone and drypoint. It is not surprising, therefore, that the English critics of the time were not ready for such a radical interpretation of what a print (that was ultimately topographically conceived) could be.
A review of the show at the Fine Art Society, published in the British Architect on December 10, 1880, reads: “‘Nocturne’ is different in treatment to the rest of the prints, and can hardly be called, as it stands, an etching; the bones as it were of the picture have been etched, which bones consist of some shipping and distant objects, and then over the whole plate ink has apparently been smeared. We have seen a great many representations of Venetian skies, but never saw one before consisting of brown smoke with clots of ink in diagonal lines.”
The critic’s objections might easily have been directed to an impression like the one offered here. It is an exceptionally richly inked example of the final state in which the drypoint work has lost most of its burr. The artist did not consciously remove it, however, but instead allowed it to fade away. The result is a very high level of abstraction, further enhanced in our impression by the strong plate tone. The composition as a whole does indeed—to quote from the University of Glasgow’s online catalogue—“appear to have dissolved in nocturnal mist.”
The artistic intentionality of this effect is also made clear by Whistler’s own careful annotations, marking this impression as an outstanding example.