The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler

 

Whistler in his Paris Studio, 1890s, Department of Special Collections, Glascow University Library

The Art Institute of Chicago announces the publication of a major book on the works of James McNeill Whistler, released in conjunction with the exhibition Songs on Stone: James McNeill Whistler and the Art of Lithography, on view at the Art Institute from lune 6 through August 30, 1998. Entitled The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler, this generously illustrated two-volume catalogue presents Whistler's lithographic work in thorough technical and contextual detail. (Volume I: 520 pages; 18 colorplates, 205 tritones, 125 duotones; ISBN 0-8~559-150-4 Volume II: 472 pages; 185 duotones, 331 halftones; ISBN 0-86559-151-2)

Design for a sign for the exhibition "A Collection of Lithographs by James McNeil Whistler," London, 1895-96, Pen and ink and graphite on cream card, 88 115mm, Department of Special Collections, Glascow University Library

This catalogue is made possible through the generous support of The Arie and Ida Crown Memorial, which, in 1983, placed a world - famous collection of Whistler's lithographs on long-term loan at The Art Institute of Chicago. The MansfieId - Whittemore - Crown Collection, as this comprehensive collection is called, has served as the basis for research on the catalogue raisonne, which will serve as the definitive statement on the artist's work in lithography for generations to come.

This two-volume siipcased set is one of the most magnificent accomplishments of our time in both art scholarship and book production. Eagerly anticipated during the ten years it has been in preparation, its appearance is truly an event in the worlds of art and publishing.

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), a towering figure in nineteenth-century art, is also one of the most important and beloved of American artists. He was first introduced to the lithographic medium in 1855 before leaving America. He returned to the medium and explored its full range in London in 1878-79, but abandoned it after finding that the market was undermined by prejudice against lithography as a commercial rather than a fine art medium. Most of his lithographs were done in London and Paris between 1887 and 1897, with an extraordinary concentration of works accomplished from 1894 to 1896. In 1890 he began to experiment with color lithography, probably to produce prints that resembled drawings colored with chalk, pastel, or watercolors.

The years of Whistler's greatest interest in lithography correspond to the beginning of the lithographic revival in Britain and to the happy period of his marriage to Beatrix Philip (from 1888 until her death in 1896) and their sojourn in Paris.

Between 1878 and 1897 Whistler developed a growing enthusiasm for and commitment to this delicate, evanescent medium. He challenged himself and the medium to create the most distilled images of his career, works that capture the unfettered essence of his subject matter. At a time when lithography was generally associated with commercial printing and the garish hues of chromolithography, Whistler's airy "drawings," as he thought of them, were as innovative as his nearly abstract painted nocturnes. His work encompassed direct and transfer lithography as well as lithotint.

When Whistler referred to his late lithographs as "Songs on Stone," he was making the point that the aim of his pictorial imagery went beyond its descriptive capacity. Like many Symbolist artists of the fin de siecle, he aspired to create a visual equivalent to music, as he also did by titling his paintings "Nocturne" or "Harmony."

In the century since Whistler completed his lithographic oeuvre, these elegant works have continued to be overlooked and misunderstood, largely because their delicacy makes them extremely difficult to reproduce. This problem is overcome for the first time in this extraordinary set through the technology of high-resolution digital photography, a technology that was unavailable even when this set was first conceived ten years ago. This technology, combined with tritone and four-color printing, permits the reproduction of Whistler's lithographs at facsimile quality (many at actual size), capturing not only every trace of his drawing with lithographic crayon and washes, but also the precise tonality of the special papers on which the lithographs were printed. For the first time it becomes possible to devote the same serious attention to this body of work that has traditionally been accorded to Whistler's etchings.

Volume I of The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler catalogues and reproduces all 179 works in this medium, some of them virtually unknown until now, along with 16 lithographic drawings that were never transferred or editioned. The catalogue entries are the result of extensive archival research and direct technical examination; as a result they provide new insight into Whistler's methods and aims, and also establish a significantly more precise chronology for Whistler's lithographs than has been possible through earlier scholarship.

Many of the catalogue entries reproduce not only drawings and related works in other mediums, even photographs of the sites Whistler drew, but also multiple states, permitting us to follow the artist's practice of rendering the same subject over and over with different inks, different papers, in a dogged search for the combination best suited to the realization of his vision. The subjects include figure studies (nude, seminude, and clothed), portraits, mothers and children,workers, shops, and such sites as bridges, gardens, and river views in England and France. Volume I also features extensive essays about Whistler's career in lithography.

Volume II of The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler reprints all 173 of the extant letters between Whistler and his primary printer, Thomas Way of London, dating between 1878 and 1897, providing unparalleled documentation of their historic collaboration. (Most of Whistler's other lithographs were printed by three firms in France.)

The Whistler-Way letters are supplemented by five appendixes of letters between them and their attorneys, bills, sales records, exhibition catalogues, advertisements, lists, and miscellaneous material. Volume II also includes:

 

The Art Institute of Chicago is complementing Songs on Stone: James McNeill Whistler and the Arf of Lithography with an exhibition that provides a fascinating context for Whistler's innovations in the medium of lithography. Artists' Lithographs: A Bicentennial Celebration (on view in Galleries 116 and 119 May 16-September 6, 1998) celebrates the 200th anniversary of the invention of lithography with a display of 150 lithographs spanning the early 19th through 20th centuries.

The exhibition traces the development of the medium by featuring uintessential works of nearly 75 artists whose experimentation helped raise lithography to its current status as an art form--from Pierre Paul Prud'hon and Karl Friedrich Schinkel to Theodore Gericault and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, to Pablo Picasso and Jasper Johns. Assembled from the Art Institute's voluminous collection, the exhibition features lithographs not often displayed together that, in juxtaposition, present a revealing historical survey of lithography.

The process of lithography (from the Greek Iithos, meaning stone, and graphein, meaning to write) was invented between 1796 and 1798 by a young Bavarian named Aloys Senefelder. In developing what was the first new printing technique in three centuries, Senefelder succeeded at refining earlier, more idiosyncratic methods of printmaking by exploiting the principle that oil and water are naturally incompatible. The lithographic process begins by drawing directly on a prepared limestone with a greasy crayon or oil-based liquid called a tusche.

After the artist applies a protective layer of the water-attracting chemical gum arabic to the surface, the stone is moistened with a sponge. When an ink-charged roller then passes over the stone, the mutual antipathy of the oil and water assures that the greasy crayon marks will attract the oil-based ink and repel the water. Conversely, the non-image areas of the drawing will repel the ink and absorb the water. If lithography is done well, the resulting print will not sacrifice the range of values and delicate-to-loose line quality of the original drawing.

Unlike earlier printing and processes (e.g., etching and woodcut), lithography liberated artists from having to work subtractively with incised lines and cross-hatching. All that was now needed was to draw or paint on a stone to impart the spontaneity of a quick sketch. The subsequent development of transfer lithography enabled artists to create an image directly on a sheet of specially treated paper and then transfer the drawing onto the stone for printing. This flexibility cinched the boundaries between printing and drawing and thus invited the experimentation of important artists in times to come. Although the planar printing process of lithography implies that lithographs would appear flat (as opposed to the more dimensional effects of etching), even experts sometimes find it difficult to distinguish one process from another.

In the early years, artists called upon lithography primarily to reproduce paintings for commercial dissemination. The medium was generally associated with bold commercial imagery and considered a lowly tool of signmakers and advertisers. Some artists--such as Gericault, Goya, and Delacroix--did see the potential flexibility of the medium; it is thanks to their foresight and inventive imagination that lithography became a popular means of artistic expression. In such highlights of Artist's Lithographs as Goya's The Famous American Mariano Ceballoss and Brave Bull, from the series "The Bulls of Bordeaux" (1825), and Gericault's Various Subjects Drawn from Life (1820) and Return from Russia (1818), the printer's innovations and artist's imaginative manipulation of the material foreshadows the explosion of lithographic printing that would follow.

It was the artists of the late 19th century who clearly advanced the independence of lithography as an art form by drawing attention to and celebrating the medium itself. Manet's The Races (1865) is a quintessential example of the vitality of the technique and its capacity for spontaneity. Simultaneously, in England, American James McNeill Whistler rivaled the achievements of the French with delicate and refined images that maintain such control over the medium that it is often difficult for the casual observer to distinguish whether the works are drawings or lithographs. In one of his Nocturnes(l892), Whistler has clearly turned the medium, imparting his own economical mastery of line, to capture the purest essence of his subject.

Equally inventive was the refinement of color printing in the marvelous posters and broadsheets of the 1890s, exemplified by such works as Moulin Rouge--La Goulue (1891) by Toulouse-Lautrec and Bonnard's France--Champagne (1889-91). The painterly quality achieved by the application of color to stone invited the evocative experimentation often seen in 20th-century lithographs.

Despite an initial lessening of lithography's popularity in the early 20th century, such artists as Picasso, Matisse, and Mird continued to test the limits of the medium's aesthetic possibilities. Monumental works like Matisse's Odalisque in Striped Pantaloons (1925) and Picasso's Paloma with her Doll on a Black Background (1952) and Woman in Armchair (1949)--as well as Miro's brilliant color lithograph Personages and Animals (1950)--affinn the integration of lithography and painting.

 

Museum Hours: 10:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday; 10:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m. Tuesday; 10:00 a.m.- 5:00 p.m. Saturday; 12 noon - 3:00 p.m. Sunday and holidays. Regular suggested admission: adults, $7.00; children, students, and seniors, $3.50; members always free. Tuesdays free to all, except for certain special exhibitions, which may require full or extra admission fee. The Art Institute of Chicago is a museum in Chicago's Grant Park. The museum's web site can be accessed at www.artic.edu. Copies of The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistlerare available from the museum bookstore and through the publisher, Hudson Hills Press, Inc., New York City, at (212) 674-6005.

 

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements. Text and images courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.


This page was originally published 7/22/98 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 11/28/11

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