James Whistler (1834-1903), Venus, 1859. Etching and drypoint, printed in black ink on laid paper, an impression in the second (final) state: there was no published edition. 6 x 9 inches (15 x 22.6 cm) sheet 73/8 x 117/8 inches (18.8 x 30.3 cm) Reference: Kennedy 59; Glasgow 60
A study of Héloïse, ‘Fumette’, asleep in bed, her head pressed into the pillow and the bedclothes covering her lower legs. This is one of three portraits Whistler made of Fumette in 1859: one of the others shows her standing and in the third only her head and shoulders are depicted. Venus is a work in the Realist tradition, and may be compared with Courbet’s nudes of the same period. The artist may also have had in mind Rembrandt’s study of Antiope in his etching Jupiter and Antiope.
Venus was never published and there is no record of it being shown until 1898 when it was included in an Exhibition of Etchings, Drypoints and Lithographs by Whistler at H. Wunderlich & Co., New York. To have been overlooked for exhibition until so late in Whistler’s life might suggest that the subject was considered improper. Frederick Wedmore, whose catalogue of Whistler’s etchings was published in 1886, certainly disapproved of the image and described it as ‘the nude seen by Mr Whistler with rather common eyes, for once – an animal, whom sleep has overcome’.