Venice was James McNeill Whistler’s to discover, and he didn’t want to waste time with the logistics of preliminary sketches for his etchings.
He had to capture the city in the moment, so he carried prepared plates into the streets and etched the images directly into them.
That was in 1879.
Some artists of the day were intrigued and others were inspired, because Whistler’s resulting prints were more than static pictures of a place. They captured Venice’s meandering canals and crumbling architecture, along with the everyday places were people lived and worked.
Nothing was glamorized, yet there was magic in the Lowell, Massachusetts, native’s prints, reflecting his enchantment with the city. He stayed 14 months instead of the short time in which he’d been commissioned to create 12 etchings for the Fine Arts Society of London.
He created 100 prints, 11 of which are on exhibit in the LSU Museum of Art’s exhibit, “An American in Venice: James McNeill Whistler and His Legacy.” The show, organized by the Syracuse University Traveling Exhibition Program, runs through Sunday, April 19, in conjunction with, “Venice Traces: The Art of Sandra Russell Clark,” an exhibit of the New Orleans photographer’s photos of Venetian portraits on headstones.
“Whistler was one of the most important — if not the most important — American artists of the 19th century,” museum curator Katie Pfohl says. “Most people think about his paintings, but he was as equally as important as a printmaker.”
Mention the artist, and most people will think of his signature painting, “Whistler’s Mother.” That’s the colloquial name for the masterpiece Whistler titled “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.”
Anna McNeill Whistler posed for the scene in 1871 while living with her son in London. The piece has been called a “Victorian Mona Lisa.”
But Whistler left mom in England while visiting Venice.
“He was captivated by the city,” Pfohl says. “He would go out at night and make etchings of the beautiful view. I like to imagine him walking into the street and working.”
There was little to no nighttime traffic in 1879, and Whistler clearly was taken by what he saw.
And when other artists saw his work, they migrated to the city’s streets.
“Whistler arrived in Venice bankrupt in the wake of a sensational libel trial against John Ruskin in London,” writes Alastair Grieve, author of the 2000 book “Whistler in Venice.” “Venice proved both restorative and transforming for Whistler — it released a flood of creativity that enabled him to reestablish his finances, his reputation, and, to a degree, his personal life.”
Grieve wrote his text for Syracuse University in 2000, when the university’s art galleries organized the exhibit.
“Whistler sought to capture a ‘Venice of the Venetians,’ and his prints depict palazzo entries, private courtyards and sweeping views over the canal where Venice’s most famous monuments rarely appear or are background features,” Grieve continues. “Upon his return to London, Whistler exhibited his Venice works and gradually reassumed a leading place in the Victorian art avant-garde.”
His colleagues were inspired. The exhibit places Whistler’s prints alongside the work of such late 19th and early 20th century followers as James McBey, Joseph Pennell, Mortimer Menpes and Minna Bolingbroke.
Whistler’s influence also reaches through centuries. The museum is featuring two wall-sized drawings by two students in the LSU School of Art, each inspired by one of Whistler’s prints.
Graduate student Chelsea Ramirez created the drawing on the wall greeting visitors to the show. Undergrad Jacob Cobb’s Venice canal scene stretches the length of the long wall bordering the gallery.
“We put a call out to the LSU art students for this project,” Pfohl says. “These were the two we chose. They came in and did the work. It took about 40 hours for each of them.”
And in celebration of Whistler’s innovation, Pfohl has dedicated one wall to the history of printmaking. Many of the prints in this section were chosen from the museum’s collection.
But everything changed with Whistler, whose love of a city trumped artistic technicalities.
“The prints from Whistler’s Venice period are distinguished by the artist’s original approach to capturing the unique qualities of the canaled city and his innovative use of the etching process,” Grieve writes. “His prints have arguably become the most studied prints in the history of art — after those of Rembrandt — and they had a significant influence on his followers.”