Whistler’s Etching Needle on View in “The Art of Etching: Masterpieces by James McNeill Whistler”

The following is a guest post by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Prints & Photographs Division and Linda Stiber Morenus, Special Assistant to the Director of Scholarly & Educational Programs and longtime paper conservator.

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, between 1879 and 1880. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25264

The Doorway. Etching by James McNeill Whistler, between 1879 and 1880. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25264

Through September 30th, visitors to the Library of Congress Jefferson Building 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.

Etching is an intaglio printmaking technique that uses acid to etch lines below the surface of a metal plate. Display co-curators Katherine Blood and Linda Stiber Morenus selected sixteen etchings Whistler made throughout his career, including superb impressions from his French Set, Thames Set, Venice Set, and Amsterdam Set series.

Longshoremen. Etching by James McNeill Whistler, 1859. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25251

Longshore men. Etching by James McNeill Whistler, 1859. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25251

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.

Pierrot. Etching by James McNeill Whistler, 1889. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25292

The Pierrot. Etching by James McNeill Whistler, 1889. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25292

Pierrot. Etching by James McNeill Whistler, 1889. //hdl.loc.gov

The Pierrot. Etching by James McNeill Whistler, 1889. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10832

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 Pennell's etching needle and an original copper plate in center of case. Photo by Katherine Blood, 2017.

One of three “Art of Etching” display cases, with Whistler’s etching needle and an original copper plate in center of case. Photo by Katherine Blood, 2017.

“The Art of Etching: Masterpieces by James McNeill Whistler” is on display through September 30, 2017 in the Library of Congress Jefferson Building, on the first floor in the North Gallery. The featured prints, and many more, are available online. And 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

 

One Comment

  1. Jane Van Nimmen
    August 4, 2017 at 2:02 am

    Many thanks for this terrific Whistler post. It was great that you linked to the Glasgow catalogue raisonnĂ©, where one can zoom nicely on the prints and read the astute content. Your exhibition is inspiring, and Katherine’s photo of the vitrine with the etching needle takes us to the heart of the show. Congratulations!

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