American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s death, Whistler and His Circle in Venice explores the artist’s journey to find the “Venice of Venetians,” and how this brief period in Venice transformed his career. The story of the expatriate’s sojourn traces Whistler’s fall from grace in critical circles of London, his bankruptcy and his triumphant return to London from Venice, in which he won wide recognition for his draftsmanship and extreme technical proficiency both as a painter and etcher. At the Columbia Museum of Art from May 1 through July 3, 2004, this exhibition marks a long-overdue examination of Whistler and his circle. The Corcoran exhibition explores Whistler’s considerable influence on his contemporaries and followers and the subsequent impact of his fresh vision of Venice on generations of artists.
In 1879 Whistler was suffering from a lack of new patrons resulting from adverse publicity, in part due to critical reviews, as well as financial insolvency due to a lawsuit in which he sued John Ruskin for a public insult of his work. Under these circumstances Whistler readily accepted a commission in September 1879 from the Fine Arts Society in London to produce a set of 12 Venetian etchings over a period of three months. Whistler was to fall in love with the city – the long vistas and back alleys, the quiet canals and the isolated squares. He stayed on for 14 months producing over 50 etchings and subsequently achieved a high reputation as an etcher. On returning to England, these etchings and pastels re-established Whistler’s artistic reputation and marked a turning point in his career. Although critics remained divided due to Whistler’s modernist approach, contemporary artists embraced the freshness of his vision.
While in Venice, Whistler worked in a variety of media, including etching, oil and pastel. Whistler worked incredibly quickly and his etchings, while mirror images, are simple and direct thereby eliminating all extraneous details. For example, Whistler’s print, The Piazzetta relies on broad outlines to define the Venetian scene without including unnecessary details such as the upper part of the column of St. Mark.
Whistler and His Circle in Venice features 50 intimate etchings – 20 by Whistler – and also includes the work of Whistler’s circle: Otto Bacher, Charles Holloway, Mortimer Menpes, James McBey, Frank Duveneck, Joseph Pennell, Ernest Roth and John Marin. In addition, the exhibition features six etchings by Canaletto from 18 th century Venice.
“Whistler’s Venetian work is remarkable not only for its extraordinary aesthetic appeal but also for its impact on generations of later artists who represented Venice,” notes exhibition curator Eric Denker, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. “For instance, Whistler was the first artist to paint monumental non-tourist sites in Venice; John Singer Sargent also adopted that practice. Whistler also chose not to reverse his prints because he wished them to be viewed as works of art, not tourist souvenirs. Likewise, Joseph Pennell, John Marin, Ernest Roth and others did not reverse their images.”
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but lived in Russia during his youth and in Europe for all of his adult life. Whistler often courted controversy, most notably with his early patrons Frederick Leyland, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde. The work Whistler produced while in Venice rehabilitated his reputation and career and re-established Whistler as a leading artist. The 15 months he spent in Venice marked the first time Whistler developed a circle of followers.