Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on January 29, 2007 with the permission of the Richard L. Nelson Gallery. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Nelson Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address
Whistler, Lithography, and the Art of Antagonism
by Jeffrey Ruda
James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was the first art star: he cultivated a notorious public image to market both his art and his ideas about art. The results were mixed. His paintings bewildered or even offended most art fans. Each time he gained some public understanding, he would change to a new, unfamiliar mode: from Realism to a quasi-Impressionism, and from there to Symbolism. He moved back and forth between Paris and London in the hope of a better reception, but had to seek new market contacts each time. While he always had critical attention, he never made a secure living until the last ten years of his life.
Whistler was genuinely fascinated by printmaking, but he also wanted to build a market of print collectors buying at much lower price levels than he had to ask for his paintings. He was most active as an etcher. His intimate and unpretentious subjects defied cultural expectations for painting, but they fit well with the "etching revival" promoted in the late 1850s and 1860s by Whistler and other young Realist artists in Paris. After Goya's death in 1828, etching had disappeared as a creative medium. Whistler and his colleagues looked back to Rembrandt and other seventeenth-century printmakers both for technical models and to justify the choice of humble subjects.
Lithography was even more artistically unfashionable in the mid-1800s than etching. It was a young medium, discovered in 1795. It required an absorbent stone from a unique quarry in Germany. The artist drew on the stone with a greasy crayon, or brush or pen with greasy liquids. Water was rubbed across the stone, absorbed where the stone was untouched by the artist. Water-repellent ink would then soak into the areas not filled with water, to print every nuance of the draftsman's touch.
Lithography had two huge advantages over earlier printmaking techniques. First, it could yield thousands of prints with almost no decay of the printing matrix. Second, it was far closer to the flexibility and immediacy of drawing than any other kind of printing. In particular, lithographs could have broad, unbroken areas of dark tone, unlike the linear effects of etching, engraving, or woodcutting.
Gericault, Delacroix and a few other leading French painters of the early 1800s explored the new medium. However, commercial uses quickly suppressed the artistic fashion. Music, for example, had had to be engraved at great expense, but lithography made music publishing a popular industry for the first time. Lithographs were so cheap that they became the first throw-away illustrations in newspapers. This enabled the careers of Daumier, Gavarni, and other cartoonists, but it put off anyone who hoped to be recognized as an "artist."
Apart from a couple of student efforts, Whistler made lithographs during two separate periods, 1878-79 and 1887-97. His goals in 1878 were largely commercial. He was building an extravagant house in London by the distinguished architect E.W. Godwin. His former patron Frederick Leyland had refused to pay him for the now-famous Peacock Room. Worst of all, he sued the critic John Ruskin for libel in response to a stinging review. The suit was very expensive and led to Whistler's bankruptcy. In short, he was desperate for money.
At the same time, Whistler wanted to promote the artistic ideas at the heart of his quarrel with Ruskin, and his paintings had too little public exposure for that. Whistler was already working desperately hard, so it was risky for him to start to learn a new technique as well. Lithography, however, could be much closer to Whistler's painting style than any other print medium. It also offered larger print runs than etching. Moreover, during the mid-1870s some of the avant-garde French artists, including Corot, Manet, and Pissarro, had experimented with lithography in order to publicize their work in periodicals. Whistler knew these artists personally, and knew what they had been doing.
The final prompt came from Thomas Way, the London printer who handled Whistler's etchings. Way also knew about art lithography in France, and he foresaw a market for similar work in England. Only Whistler responded, and art lithography waited another ten years to be commercially viable in England. Whistler's first lithographs had at best a partial success with critics and collectors, but he developed his skills in the medium.
Whistler's return to lithography in 1887 built on a more mature "lithography revival" in Paris in the mid-1880s. Soon, however, Whistler was deeply engaged with the visual effects he could achieve in lithographs. During the early to mid-1890s, he virtually abandoned etching and made far more lithographs than a large-edition market could support. Ironically, almost all of Whistler's lithographs were printed in numbers as small as those of his etchings: from the single digits usually up to thirty or forty, though sometimes a hundred. Both Whistler and Way sought out distinctive crayons and papers for a variety of printing effects, so that Whistler's lifetime impressions can vary in character. After Whistler died, leaving his sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip as executor, she published uniform editions of most of his lithographs in editions ranging from the teens up to about sixty. The stones were then "erased," i.e. ground down for re-use.
With some prints, Whistler stimulated artificial demand: a half-dozen impressions might be pulled on large sheets, hand signed, while fifteen or twenty might be printed on smaller sheets without signatures. The larger sheets were priced two or three times higher than the smaller ones. The printing was identical, but only the expensive ones sold out. At the other extreme, eighteen of Whistler's lithographs were published in art magazines. These images were designed for printing in large numbers and on relatively tough paper, so the editions (ranging from 500 to 3000) represent Whistler's artistic goals.
Whistler altered some of his lithographs after trial printings, creating a second "state" (in a few cases, a third or even fourth). Some of the changes were minor corrections, and others were true changes in design. Whistler always preferred the latest state. However, in all phases of Whistler's printmaking, and in all media, more detailed images sold markedly better than more austere and suggestive versions of comparable subjects. Whistler despised conventional description, and he sometimes made a show of wanting to suppress his more finished-looking lithographs.
One technical issue was key to Whistler's use of lithography. Earlier art lithographers drew directly on the stone, and Whistler did so in his first works. Whistler, however, preferred to work on site or from the model. Thomas Way introduced him to the new medium of transfer paper: non-absorbent papers available in pads that Whistler could carry with him, work on, and then ship to the printer. These papers often had their own texture, which the artist had to reconcile with the image. Whistler disliked some of the earlier textures, but with increasing mastery he sometimes created his own textures by laying the thin paper over a carefully chosen support.
The transfer process had two other implications. First, all printing matrices reverse the image. Whistler was perfectly happy to print real-world scenes in reverse, because he enjoyed the ambiguous relationship between a reversed image and a real subject. Transfer lithography created a double reverse: from the transfer paper to the stone and then from the stone to the print, so the image was "true." This made his views of well-known places more salable.
Second, some of Whistler's art-world rivals attacked his transfer lithographs as a betrayal of the medium, unlike drawing directly on stone. Their best argument was the textured effect of most transfer papers, in contrast with the appearance of pure touch on stone. Whistler fought back bitterly, defending the aesthetic of his designs. More than a century later, the distinction seems arbitrary.
Whistler's lithographs have always been the least-known area of his works. This is due in part to a lingering disregard for lithography as a medium, and especially transfer lithographs. It is also due, however, to the extreme subtlety of Whistler's effects. These could not be reproduced effectively at a reasonable cost.
The Ruesch Collection and Whistler's Themes
Whistler's lithographs, like his art in general, study a handful of themes that recur throughout his career. With 67 subjects from Whistler's 179 lithographs, the Ruesch Collection represents these themes loosely in proportion to their numbers in Whistler's art. The Ruesch Collection is not, however, an impersonal survey. First, it is especially strong in works of the 1890s, which show Whistler's greatest technical and expressive subtlety. Second, of all Whistler's subjects it represents portraiture best of all Whistler's subjects. I will discuss the themes in the order of their place in the Collection.
Portraiture records not just the face, but also the social status and role of the sitter. Whistler transcended this social function in painting and in printmaking, though he gave society its due. Costume, body language, and setting (if any) mark the social identity of each sitter. At the same time, Whistler's portraits evoke not only individual character but also deep feelings about human nature and the experience of life. He treated commissioned portraits and those of his friends and family exactly the same. Some are titled with the sitter's name, and others have depersonalized titles to emphasize the suggestions of mood and character.
By his own account, Whistler progressively reduced the detail in each painted portrait so as to allow more subjective reading. In lithographs, however, the artist does not literally build up to a finished surface. Therefore Whistler had to visualize a nuanced image from the start. The process was difficult, and occasionally it went awry. More than his other subjects, Whistler's lithographs include unsatisfactory or even discarded portraits, which may have been printed in only a few trial proofs. When he drew multiple versions of a subject, he always designated his preferred version as "No. 1," or left it without number in the title, even though it was the last to be made. Alternatives were numbered in descending order of his preference: "No. 2," or sometimes even more.
The only non-lithographs in the Ruesch Collection are two drypoint portraits from 1859. They are also the Collection's only works from Whistler's Realist phase in the 1850s and 1860s, to show nearly the full span of his career. These portraits are Realist in two senses. First, the sitters appear spontaneously rather than formally posed. Second, they convey more detail and texture than Whistler's later work. The designs, however, refer to van Dyck's portrait etchings, while the technique refers to Rembrandt, who was the first great master of drypoint. In this technique, the artist works freely on a copper plate with a sharp steel tool. The handling is quite free, and kicks up a furrow of copper called "burr." The burr holds ink for tonal effects, but it is very fragile and breaks down after just a few printings. The lines are also thin and wear quickly. The artist may then "cancel" the image by damaging the surface. If the plate of a rare subject survives, it will still be printed and avidly collected, as with this impression of Astruc.
Many of Whistler's later lithographic portraits make up subgroups around his family and friends. The Ruesch Collection shows the most important of these groups especially well. One records Whistler's wife, her sisters, and her mother, the Birnie Philip family. For much of his adult life, Whistler lived with a series of mistresses (and fathered children). In 1888, he married Beatrix, or Beatrice, Godwin, the young widow of the architect E.W. Godwin. She had real artistic skill; she decorated some of the outstanding furniture Godwin designed that represents the Aesthetic movement in the Victoria and Albert Museum. By all accounts, the Whistlers were wonderfully happy together. Alas, she developed cancer in 1894 and died two years later. Whistler was distraught and quarrelled with almost everyone: most notably with his brother, a distinguished physician who made the diagnosis, and with Thomas Way, his London printer (to whom he owed a lot of money). Through it all, and for the rest of his life, he remained very close to the Birnie Philip sisters and their mother.
By the time of his marriage, Whistler was deeply involved with the Symbolist movement led by the French poet Stephane Mallarme. Their Symbolism was not a code of signs for specific ideas. Rather, it meant a dismissal of physical appearances in favor of subjective experience. In 1890, Whistler drew a pair of lithographs of his sister-in-law Ethel Birnie Philip for magazine publication: The Winged Hat and Gants de Suede ("Suede Gloves"). He sent several copies of the first to Mallarme, who found it "powerful and elegant and supremely charming," and wrote a sonnet in response. While the images seem nearly evanescent, they are technically sophisticated with the exacting use of varied crayons.
Beatrix Whistler appears in La Robe Rouge (1894). The image of a fashionable lady slouched on a sofa was nearly a cliché, especially in the work of other expatriot Americans such as John Singer Sargent or William Merritt Chase. Their work, however, always provides a richly detailed setting that plays the inner life of the figure against her social context. For Whistler, the sketchy background only accents the sitter's unresolved mood, tense beneath the seeming ease. With hindsight, we know that Beatrix had been diagnosed with cancer just a few weeks earlier.
Needlework (1896) shows the youngest sister, Rosalind, on a visit during Beatrix's final illness. Mother and Daughter (1897; miss-titled by French dealers as "The Sick Mother") shows Mrs. Birnie Philip and one of her daughters visiting Whistler in Paris, more than a year after Beatrix died. We may read here the pathos of Whistler's life. However, like many great portraits and like most of Whistler's work, they suggest feelings and ideas without telling a specific story. They are also superb displays of technical finesse.
During the same period, Whistler liked to draw his artworld friends. The Ruesch Collection includes three of the four portraits drawn in 1896 of Joseph Pennell, an American printmaker and landscapist who was Whistler's most faithful direct follower. The Russian Schube shows him as an exotic figure in a Russian peasant overcoat. Firelight: Joseph Pennell, No. 1 is perhaps the best lithograph among Whistler's several firelight portraits. Whistler loved the ambiguity of firelight. He chose this version to meet his commission for a frontispiece to the forthcoming major book on lithography by Pennell and his wife.
The Ruesch Collection includes one other, peculiar portrait series. Whistler exhibited Arrangement in Black and Gold: Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac (New York, The Frick Collection) in Paris in 1894. It was a huge critical success. Several journals asked Whistler for permission to reproduce it. He decided to make his own reproduction for the prestigious Gazette des beaux-arts. He and Beatrix each made two versions, with the outlines probably traced from a photograph. Whistler's earlier version, shown here, was drawn on very thin transfer paper. Whistler rejected it for the published edition (hence the "No. 2"), but he allowed his French printers to make collector proofs. A few years later, Whistler was one of the first painters to realize that reproductive prints were a dead technology. He commissioned photographs of several of his paintings and signed them on the mounts.
Modern Life: Public Scenes
Public life in the modern city was a hallmark subject of Impressionism. Whistler shared the topical interest. By the time of his great lithographic output in the late 1880s and 1890s, however, he applied his ideas of nuanced suggestion to this area as well as to portraiture. For example, he drew Victoria Club in 1879, among his earliest lithographs. The club of the title was engaged mainly with horse racing, but the scene plays random figures on the street against the spotty chiaroscuro of the building. For a collectors' set of lithographs published in 1887, Whistler scraped away some children and other details in the foreground. The image becomes more remote, even less anecdotal.
The Ruesch Collection has special depth in Whistler's scenes of the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Whistler allowed conventional charm in a few of them: the contrasting silhouettes of dark woman and light child in The Steps, Luxembourg (1893); or the perfectly captured poses of childhood in Nursemaids: "Les Bonnes du Luxembourg" (1894). Most of them, however, play the transience of human action and even of foliage against the endurance of a focal building or statue. These scant pictures use a remarkable range of touches, yet sparingly.
Whistler's kinship with Impressionism shows through in a few cases. The Long Balcony (1894) could pass for a charming view of spectators shielded from the sun by parasols. In fact, Whistler drew them watching the funeral cortege of the assassinated French President Carnot. Like the Impressionists, Whistler detached his scene from self-important narrative. Unlike them, however, he transformed a scene drawn from life into a suggestion of memory or imagination rather than maintaining truth to a moment.
Realism: Poor Neighborhoods and the Working Class
Whistler never quite lost the interest in working class life sparked by his French colleagues in the 1850s. He nevertheless achieved very different effects, and he had a peculiar love of downscale shopfonts. Drury Lane Rags or Chelsea Rags (both 1888) and Maunder's Fish shop, Chelsea (1890), were unmistakeable to the art public of their day as quaint scenes of working class or poor neighborhoods. (London's Chelsea is now so fashionable that we forget how Whistler and other artists gentrified it by moving there.) Still, the avoidance of anecdote removes Whistler's scenes from the pathos and condescension of work by French artists in London such as his old friend Alphonse Legros, or Gustave Dore.
A shopfront scene in Paris was a favorite of Whistler himself among his lithographs. The Laundress: "La Blanchisseuse de la Place Dauphine" (1894) is worked in pure line, an understated tour de force. The women and the hanging laundry soften the shopfront geometry. The figures almost disappear within the architecture, and they are literally removed from us by the door and window frames. Yet sharply observed body language and subtle lighting capture the truth of hard lives. Whistler sharply denied any polemical choice in his subjects, but the images do speak for themselves.
Whistler's many forge scenes combined an interest in vanishing manual skills with his love of mysterious lighting. The Tyresmith (1890) is separated by only five years, but by more than half of Whistler's lithographs, from The Good Shoe (1895). Both exploit abrupt contrasts of interior shadow with exterior light, and both use large areas of bare paper to suggest light. Yet the earlier scene looks full of detail by comparison with the later. At first sight, The Good Shoe is a scant record of a casual moment. In fact, it leavens wonderfully economical drawing with humor: a brightly lighted horse's rear end, patient yet awkward as the farrier raises its leg, beyond a black and white cat pooping in the foreground.
The subject of working-class neighborhoods already included some historic architecture, which was vanishing with Victorian urbanization. Whistler's earlier scenes of pure architecture were pitched to a growing concern with historic preservation. These lithographs included Entrance Gate and Churchyard, both drawn in 1887 at the threatened church of St. Bartholomew the Great in London's run-down East End. In fact Whistler's highly selective views could not compete with photographic campaigns or topographical prints. Photographs show that Whistler was very accurate with details he liked, while playing with overall space and proportion.
The medieval buildings Whistler drew on summer trips in northern France in the mid-1890s are his own most topographical works, frankly quaint in subject. In Vitre: The Canal (1893) Whistler experimented with soft crayons, a greasy "stump," and exceptionally fine-grained transfer paper. The results were visually denser than Whistler's previous work, but he was very pleased. He immediately regretted The Priest's House, Rouen (1894-95) because of its relatively high finish. His printers and dealers argued him into letting the image be printed, and even into making technical corrections to the stone.
St. Anne's, Soho (1896) is one of two neighborhood churches Whistler drew on walks during his wife's final illness. The building was a spare block with ugly proportions. Whistler suppressed the bulk to stress height in the tower, and then played up the tracery of late-winter branches. The image is arguably symbolic in the conventional sense.
Female Figure Studies
The nude or semi-clothed female model is now an art cliché. In Whistler's time, however, it was still a meaningful emblem of ideal beauty and the practice of art; Whistler took it very seriously. In his paintings, he blended classical figure types with Japanese accoutrements and compositions to posit a cross-cultural ideal. Most of his lithographic nudes are specifically European in type. Many of them, such as Model lDraping (probably 1889) show careful study of Hellenistic sculpture such as the recently discovered Tanagra statuettes.
Most of these lithographs exist in few examples. The Ruesch collection, remarkably, has all three of the figures that Whistler drew probably in 1889, and later regarded as techinical experiments. Among them, The Horoscope is a notable venture into the Symbolist motif of the seer (innaccurate thought the title may be), while Model Draping has been called a femme fatale.
The River Thames
Early in 1896, the Whistlers returned to London from Paris for Beatrix's last cancer treatments. They stayed in the Savoy Hotel, with a river view. The Ruesch collection has three of the lithographs he drew from their suite, looking up or down the river at various times of day. Savoy Pigeons sets their balcony (and two pigeons) against a hazy view of Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. For the misty light of Evening, Little Waterloo Bridge, Whistler made changes directly on the stone after the drawing was transferred. In contrast, early morning sharpness emerges from the mist in Waterloo Bridge. Monet painted similar views, but Whistler's sparing black and white achieves as much atmosphere as all that beautiful color.
Whistler designed his own most important exhibitions. For one show of prints, he ordered white frames and had the rooms painted white. This was the first modern all-white gallery design. For a major etchings show in 1883, he designed an all-yellow scheme with blue and white Chinese vases as accents. He was so keen on a unified effect-and its publicity-that he asked the ladies to wear coordinated colors. Whistler's original effects cannot be recreated, because the papers themselves have changed color with age. Even so, the Ruesch Collection has been installed in tribute to his ideals.
Copyright 2007 Jeffrey Ruda
About the author
Jeffrey Ruda is a faculty member of the Program in Art History at the University of California, Davis. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1979, a M.A. from Harvard University in 1974 and a B.A. from Swarthmore College in 1969.
About the exhibition
The Nelson Gallery's Winter 2007 exhibition is the complete Jeffrey Ruesch Collection of lithographs by James McNeill Whistler. Mr. Ruesch, an alum who passed away in 2003, assembled some of the best and rarest of Whistler's works and his gift brings the Nelson's holdings of Whistler prints to 71. To celebrate the late Mr. Ruesch's generosity, all sixty prints will be on view, and a publication will be created to document this special event. A representative of the estate was present at the opening celebration on January 11, 2007.
Resource Library editor's note:
Jeffrey Ruda's essay was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on January 29, 2007 with the permission of the Richard L. Nelson Gallery & The Fine Arts Collection. This text accompanies the world premiere exhibition Ruesch Collection of Whistler Prints being held at the gallery January 11 through March 18, 2007.
If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Richard L. Nelson Gallery & The Fine Arts Collection directly through either this phone number or web address:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Renny Pritikin, Director, Nelson Gallery, for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
RL readers may also enjoy:
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Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Richard L. Nelson Gallery & The Fine Arts Collection in Resource Library.
TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:
Whistler: An American in Europe 27 minute / 1998 / FFH - "This program explores Whistler's life in nineteenth-century Paris from his early studies of light and form to his historic court battle with the English art critic, John Ruskin. Featured in this video are many of Whistler's early works: White Girl, Symphony in White, Homage to Delacroix, and Arrangement in Black and Grey (Whistler's Mother). The film ends with a study of Whistler's dark, dream-like Nocturnes and the many works he completed that were inspired by Japanese art."
Whistler: Romantics and Realists. This 50 minute 2000 video, part of the Romantics & Realists series from Kultur Video, analyzes Whistler's style as a compromise between discipline and innovation. The painter's distinctive yet formal technique is explained as the viewer looks at several of his best works. Whistler became famous for his technique of placing a figure against a background that was virtually empty and colorless, as in the popular painting that has come to be known as Whistler's Mother "This video is a biographical analysis of the development of James Whistler's painting style. The tempestuous American moved to Europe after studying art at West Point Military Academy. He settled eventually in London where his technique matured into his brand of romantic realism influenced in part by, Leonardo da Vinci, Valasquez, Courbet, and the Pre-Raphaelites including Millet and Rossetti." ASIN: B00004YA60
Whistler - The Gentle Art of Making Enemies is a 59 minute 2001 BBC video released by Home Vision Entertainment. James McNeill Whistler was one of the most contentious artists of the 19th century, but was also one of the most misunderstood. Painter, draughtsman, etcher, watercolorist and interior designer, he was renowned as much for his wit, style and elegance as he was for his work. The story of Whistler's life unfolds in a mixture of humor and pathos, told through images found in his paintings to the music of Debussy, who found inspiration from his work. (from the back cover) Whistler: The Gentle Art of Making Enemies is available through the Sullivan Video Library at The Speed Art Museum which holds a sizable collection of art-related videos available to educators at no charge.
TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.
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