National Academy Museum

and School of Fine Arts



May 1 - June 26, 1998


James McNeill Whistler

The Balcony, from "Second Venice Set," 1879-80, 11 5/8 x 7 7/8 inches, etching

Collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art


Five works from Whistler's first set of etchings, the "French Set" of 1858, will be included in the exhibition. The repertoire of subjects for which he would become known - the humble figure framed in the doorway, the obscure landscape or building, the effect of light on a subject, and nocturnal scenes - makes its first appearance in these early works. The selection includes Street at Saverne, the first nocturne among his etchings, and The Kitchen, an image admired for its reference to seventeenth-century Dutch interiors.

Looking to create unglorified portrayals of ordinary people and places, Whistler turned to London's squalid, dilapidated wharves along the nver Thames as inspiration for a group of etchings later published as the "Thames Set." In a radical shift from the "French Set" of the year before, the artist flattened the picture space in these 1859 etchings, most likely influenced by the new medium of photography and by the treatment of space in the Japanese woodblock prints he began to collect. The Limeburner and Rotherhithe, hvo of the nine prints on view from this set, show the overlapping, tangled mass of wharves and rigging and the rugged dockworkers who inhabited an area that most Londoners chose to ignore. Whistler's vision, however, revealed the hidden beauty of the dying waterfront that was soon to be demolished. The Thames etchings received immediate acclaim, with critics comparing Whistler to another famous etcher, Rembrandt.

Drawn to drypoint because of its immediacy and rich velvety line, Whistler experimented with this medium in his portrait prints of the early 1860s. Weary, an ethereal drypoint portrait of his model and mistress Joanna Hiffernan resting languidly in a chair, is one of the last etchings Whistler made before temporarily giving up printmaking from 1863 to1870.

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