In 1879 James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was commissioned by the Fine Art Society to produce twelve etchings of Venice, Italy with the expectation the series would be completed by Christmas and sold in London. Provided with a stipend for his expenses Whistler arrived in Venice in September 1879 and remained in Italy until November 1880, producing fifty-one etchings, a handful of oil paintings and watercolors, and approximately one hundred pastel drawings. It is clear that the luminous canals of Venice inspired Whistler to achieve a new intensity within his etching practice during this voraciously productive period.
Positioning himself on the Riva degli Schiavoni, west of the Chiesa della Pietà – Santa Maria della Visitazione, the panoramic view of the historic harbor became the subject of a series of etchings, including Long Venice. Whistler’s vision of the Venetian shoreline differed from the romantic and mysterious city, portrayed by Francesco Lazzaro Guardi (1712-1793) and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), popular throughout the nineteenth century. By drawing with a needle directly onto a prepared copper plate, Whistler developed a type of shorthand notation to instill the beauty of the scene. The view was reversed in the printing process, yet the architecture and setting remained recognizable on the final print. The delicate lines and size of print encouraged close examination to audiences in London—with time the soft brown tones of the ink morphed into a lingering fog and the brief markings delineated gondolieri scattered throughout the Grand Canal for the viewer.
To ensure the authenticity and intimate appreciation of this impression, Whistler designed three key aspects of its final presentation. In 1880 Whistler etched his unique butterfly stamp on the copper plate before the plate was printed (visible on the lower left of the composition). The design of this signature stamp was derived from signatures he studied in Japanese prints and was a culmination of examples he developed in his paintings of the 1870s. After completing his fifth round of alternations to the plate in drypoint (circa 1885) Whistler printed this impression using a dark brown ink and signed the tab with an abbreviated butterfly signature, including “imp.” This proves that Whistler printed the impression himself. Finally, to prevent the work from being shown in an oversized matt, or trimmed unevenly to fit into a bound album, the work was cut along the plate mark by the artist. The thin dimensions ensure the work must be floated into any mount or frame to accentuate its delicate profile.
As part of the Cooper Hewitt collection, Long Venice is a wonderful example of how Whistler challenged art historical traditions, whether relating to subject matter or printings methods, to leave his mark on the modern art market.
This post was written by Dr. Josephine Rodgers, Research Assistant for American Art in the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.