Digital Commonwealth

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). Lithographs, Etchings, and Drawings

Boston Public Library

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American painter and printmaker born in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Whistler received his first training as an artist in St. Petersburg, Russia, while his father was working there as a railroad engineer. Whistler’s early interest in art was encouraged further by his English brother-in-law, Sir Francis Seymour Haden, a talented etcher as well as physician.

After his father’s death in 1849, Whistler’s family moved back to the United States and Whistler was admitted to the military academy at West Point. Although he only remained at West Point until 1854, it was there that he learned drawing and map-making from the American artist Robert W. Weir -- skills that he continued to develop working as a draftsman for the U.S. Coast Survey. It was during his time with the Coast Survey that he also learned the technique of etching.

Whistler determined to pursue a career as an artist. He moved to Paris in 1855, where he continued his studies in the atelier of Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. He also became friends with members of the artistic avant-garde, including Gustave Courbet, Alphonse Legros, Édouard Manet, and Henri Fantin-Latour.

By 1855, there was a movement among artists in France and England to revive etching as a fine-art medium. Inspired by the importation of Japanese prints into Paris after the reopening of trade with Japan in 1854, artists also looked back to the golden age of European printmaking as practiced by Dutch 17th century artists, especially Rembrandt van Rijn. The influence of that tradition can be seen in Whistler’s first series of etchings, “The French Set” or “The Twelve Etchings from Nature,” published in 1858 with the assistance of the French master printer Auguste Delâtre. It also is evident in his second major series, “The Thames Set,” published in 1871 from plates Whistler created after he had settled permanently in London.

Whistler continued to create prints throughout his career, including two major series of etched views of Venice published by The Fine Art Society in London, the first in 1880 and the second in 1886. Whistler also created lithographs with the assistance of the master lithographer Thomas Way.

Of the total number of prints created by Whistler, Boston Public Library’s collection includes approximately one-quarter of his etchings and one-quarter of his lithographs. The collection also includes a set of impressions from cancelled plates, which are of particular interest as impressions of some of the plates are only known in their cancelled state.

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