Art Review Archives:
Whistler and His Circle in Venice
160 pages with 164 illustrations in full color
Over a century since their execution, James McNeill Whistler's (1834-1903) pastels and etchings of Venice remain beguiling images of this ancient city of waterways, lake views and narrow medieval streets. Whistler and His Circle in Venice offers a dual focus on this artist's achievements during his eighteen-month stay in 1879-80: his own innovations in technique and pictorial space, and the influence his new vision had on other artists, including John Singer Sargent and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Beautifully illustrated, clearly written, Whistler and His Circle in Venice is an appealing art book and a detailed, very readable reference to a period that represented not only a personal renaissance for the artist's career but had effects felt through subsequent decades.
The book opens with a brief history. Whistler came to Venice in disgrace, as it were. Having alienated his main patron, and with finances tapped to the point of bankruptcy by the celebrated Whistler-Ruskin libel suit, the artist was only too happy to accept a commission by the London Fine Arts Society to spend three months in Venice, etching "twelve plates, returning in time for December holiday sales." He ended up spending fourteen months, creating dozens of etchings and pastels, and applying an entirely new visual vocabulary to the lagoon city. Denker notes:
Having arrived in Venice, and working through some of the most bitter winter weather on record, the artist succeeded amply in his goals. Denker's text offers an excellent complement to the artist's plates, seventy-eight in number, which are grouped by media: rich, warm, vibrant pastels, and the dense texture or evocative simplicity of the etchings. In highlighting Whistler's innovations, which touched every aspect of his art -- including composition, use of toned paper, his development of a central motif, his use of color and detail, choice of subjects, and "revision of pictorial space" -- Whistler and His Circle in Venice creates an awareness of that much more to see and explore in the works illustrated.
An example is Beadstringers (pl. 10), where the orientation of the long paper pushes the view into a strong vertical. Central highlights of colorful pastel capture the feel of the narrow medieval street and its promise of a sunlit vista at the far end; while the bare toned paper resolves expertly into the alley's shadowed walls. Venice (pl. 12) is even more minimal, capturing with the briefest smears of yellow pigment the departing light and its faint reflection on the water. Gondolas and distant architecture are roughed-out in black. The rest is bare, brown paper: but the eye understands, and sees a foreground of deepening twilight which mutes these elements into mere dusky shapes.
As the book notes, Whistler applied many of the same methods to the composition of his etchings. With these he experimented as well with printing techniques, including manipulation of the ink to produce a variety of moods from the same plate. Nocturne: Palaces is presented in two printings. Plate 50, heavily inked, is deep with night and mystery, the canal before the buildings a glassy black mirror reflecting the impenetrable murk of the sky. In plate 51 the mood is significantly lighter, still mysterious, but less menacing.
The second half of the book's dual focus explores the effect of the Venetian vision "in the wake of the Butterfly." In Venice itself, Whistler enjoyed the company of artist Frank Duveneck and his students (the Duveneck "boys"), whose awareness of Whistler's insights reflects in their work of the time. On his return to London, Whistler's etchings and pastels received abundant exposure:
His work met with some criticism, as might be expected. His pastels, with their broad expanses of bare toned paper, were considered not as "finished" as the time demanded, a critique leveled in the London exhibition of 1881. But for the most part artists seized on his observations and sought to express them for themselves. The second plate section, "Whistler's Circle in Venice," features sixty-four illustrations, including the work of Duveneck and several of the "boys" as well as further artists whose composition and handling of media in Venetian views express the vision of the American artist. Such works include Jerome Elwell's Venetian Street (pl. 106), a pastel on toned paper done in the Whistlerian style, and Joseph Pennell's etchings, which directly and indirectly adopt Whistler's "graphic vocabulary", particularly Doorway, Venice (pl. 114) with its 'quilted' doorway guiding the eye to a distant vista. To see Whistler's ideas filtered through other artists allows a fascinating comparison and contrast.
Whistler's influence on John Singer Sargent, for many years his acquaintance and rival, is discussed in depth. (Sargent's art is given several illustrations in the figures but only moderately represented in the exhibition plates, which rightly reserve themselves for those artists less available through other sources.) More briefly documented, American photographer Alfred Stieglitz is also shown to have picked up Whistler's vision. Whistler and His Circle in Venice includes six photos of Venice taken in the 1890s by the American photographer. The 'literal' truth of photographs taken fifteen years later provides a stimulating comparison to Whistler's Venice, and conversely, the influence of the older artist can be seen in photos such as A Venetian Canal (pl. 143), taken in 1894, whose narrow, back-alley canal with its enclosing vertical walls recalls several of Whistler's works.
Denker's writing in particular (there are as well two contributing authors) balances simplicity and clarity with an in-depth explanation that, as noted above, brings a whole wealth of understanding to the visual experience. An interweaving of themes and information among the four essays lends a feeling of continuity when reading from one to the next, linking them in mind and bringing a unity to their four angles of exploration. It is a unity that melds well with the well-organized plates: while many similar books seem to feature disassociated essays only marginally related, Whistler and His Circle in Venice offers the pleasing experience of a coherent whole. And the plates, as might be hoped, sparkle: the pastels shimmer, the delicate etchings vibrate with detail, immediacy and vigor, and the large pages (9-1/2 x 11 in.) allow for ample size, rife with color, detail and nuance.
Whistler returned triumphant from his stay in Venice, and viewing his works, one can see why. His vision has a freshness and discernment that were exciting to artists of his own time and move the viewer even today. The book melds its dual focus well, highlighting not only the achievements of the artist, but the recognition of his originality as artists of his time and after sought to explore 'his' Venice in their own works. Whistler and His Circle in Venice is a pleasing harmony of art and scholarship worthy of both the artist, and the many artistic impressions he inspired in illustrating one of the loveliest cities in the world.
Whistler and His Circle in Venice is the companion volume to the exhibition of the same name. The exhibition will be showing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (http://www.corcoran.org) from February 8 - May 5, 2003 and at the Grolier Club in New York City (http://www.grolierclub.org) from September 17 - November 22, 2003. The author, Eric Denker, is curator of prints and drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself.