The Art of Etching: Masterpieces by James McNeill Whistler

This is a guest post by Katherine Blood, curator of fine prints in the Prints and Photographs Division, and Linda Stiber Morenus, a longtime paper conservator and special assistant to the director of scholarly and educational programs. The post was first published on “Picture This,” the blog of the Prints and Photographs Division.

Known for his credo “Art for Art’s Sake,” American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was a virtuoso etcher whose delicate lines and dreamlike atmospherics were achieved through rigorous work.

“The Doorway,” etching by James McNeill Whistler, c. 1879–80

Through the end of this month, visitors to the Library of Congress can explore a special display of original Whistler etchings alongside the artist’s etching needle and one of his original copper etching plates. All come from the Library’s extensive Whistler collection, which includes over 400 etchings, lithographs and drawings, as well as photographs, technical materials, ephemera, correspondence and books. Even if you do not plan a trip to Washington, D.C., the prints featured in the display and many more are available online.

Etching is an intaglio printmaking technique that uses acid to etch lines below the surface of a metal plate. As co-curators of the display, we selected 16 etchings Whistler made throughout his career, including superb impressions from his “French Set,” “Thames Set,” “Venice Set” and “Amsterdam Set” series.

“Longshoremen,” 1859

Side-by-side comparisons printed on different papers, with variant approaches to ink application, and in different states before and after plate changes, highlight the artist’s evolving practice and careful choices to create artworks so compelling they continue to inspire artists and audiences today.

Each time the etching plate changes and is reprinted, a new “state” is produced. In the etchings below, Whistler’s earlier state of “The Pierrot” combines delicate etched lines and a thin skim of ink (or plate tone) in the foreground. The later state has extensive additions of lines that suggest deep, floating shadows. Whistler also added his butterfly monogram near the upper left corner. Though the action is set on an Amsterdam canal, Whistler has poetically imagined the young man in the role of Pierrot from the Italian commedia dell’arte.

“The Pierrot,” 1889

“The Pierrot,” 1889

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also not to be missed is an original etching by 17th-century Dutch master Rembrandt, who was one of Whistler’s early influences.

One of three “Art of Etching” display cases, with Whistler’s etching needle and an original copper plate in the center of the case. Photo by Katherine Blood.

“The Art of Etching: Masterpieces by James McNeill Whistler” is on display through September 30 in the Library’s Jefferson Building. For further explorations, the Library’s Whistler holdings are ready to study and enjoy in several of its research centers, including the Prints and Photographs Division, Manuscript Division, and Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Learn More

World War I: Workers Greet Labor Day 1918 with Optimism

This is a guest post by Ryan Reft, a historian in the Manuscript Division. Amid war, Labor Day in 1918 took on increased importance. Mobilization had presented unprecedented opportunities, and workers achieved remarkable advances during America’s months at war. Many reached out to President Woodrow Wilson before the 1918 holiday, hoping that he might make […]

World War I: Exhibition Specialists to Host Live Web Talks

This is a guest post by Kathleen McGuigan, an educational resources specialist in the Educational Outreach Program. Hundreds of visitors to the Library over the past few months have taken a deep dive into the Library’s World War I resources by attending a gallery talk—a presentation by a Library specialist about the exhibition “Echoes of […]

World War I: Over There

This is a guest post by Rachel Telford, archivist for the Veterans History Project. It was first published on “Folklife Today,” the blog of the American Folklife Center. Recently, the Veterans History Project launched “Over There,” part two of our companion site to the Library of Congress exhibit “Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences […]

A Different Sense of Thomas Jefferson’s Library

This post is by Zein Al-Maha Oweis, a summer intern in the Library’s Communications Office. You know that feeling when Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” walks into the beast’s library of books from around the world—the gleam in her eyes that shows you she is amazed to see so many books creatively filled with […]

Pic of the Week: Library Fellows Display Treasures

This week, interns participating in the Library’s Junior Fellows Program presented more than 150 rare and unique items they researched and processed over the summer. For the first time since the program’s launch in 1991, “display day” was open to the public. Items on view included blueprints for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, a letter […]

World War I: Quentin Roosevelt’s Story

This is a guest post by Ryan Reft, a historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division. Teddy Roosevelt believed in the efficacy of war. For Roosevelt, the call to arms expressed national greatness and bold masculinity. Unsurprisingly, the former president loudly championed America’s entrance into World War I, often assailing President Wilson in the years and […]

May It Please the Court: “Drawing Justice: The Art of Courtroom Illustration”

(The following is an excerpt from an article by Sara W. Duke from the May/June 2017 issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. Duke, curator of popular and applied graphic art, writes about how courtroom illustrations capture the styles of the times in which cases are heard. Read the entire May/June issue here.) “Drawing Justice: […]