Portrait of Axenfeld

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American 1834-1903- Portrait of Axenfeld; etching, signed in pencil with the artist’s butterfly monogram (in the lower margin; see discussion below), inscribed Whistler 1860 (in the plate), further signed and inscribed fine proof verso, the plate 22.5 x 14.8 cm. Kennedy 64, third state of three; Glasgow 68, fifth state (of 6). In generally good condition; some repaired tears (including the sides of the “tab”, which apparently was cut but not completed by Whistler by trimming the plate, as was his usual practice (although with many exceptions) when creating the tab.

Provenance: Collection of B. B. MacGeorge (Lugt 394).; Collection of George B. Vanderbilt (not in Lugt).; With Thomas Agnew & Sons, London, no.39383.; Private Collection, UK, since 1976.; By descent. Exhibited: London, Thomas Agnew & Sons, 1976, no.101. Agnew label, which includes provenance data, is appended to back of the mat.

A fine impression of this rare early work. This appears to be the only impression of the print (before cancellation of the plate) currently in private hands. Impressions from the cancelled plate were made and included in a collection of cancelled impressions sold by the Fine Art Society in 1879. The cancellation obliterated the image of this rare print, which was never editioned.

The present work is a fine example of Whistler’s skill as a portraitist. It is one of the earlier etchings associated with the period of his first work in Paris, though it was not produced until after his move to London. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861, and exhibited widely thereafter.

The practice of trimming a print and leaving a tab for the butterfly was not used by Whistler when the print was made, but much later, probably after 1871. However he did occasionally inscribe the butterfly on prints done earlier; we are aware of a number of such instances. Whistler is known for putting his butterfly on the verso of several impressions of the print sold to Samuel Avery, probably around 1874, which later became part of the NY Public Library collection.