Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Whistler Month: "No Day without a Line"

Black Lion Wharf, Wapping 1859
image: 143 x 225 mm; Etching on paper

In 1854 James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) inscribed on one of his sketches Nulla dies sine linea — “No day without a line” — an artist’s motto that first appeared in the pages of Pliny. For the next half century there was scarcely a day that the artist was without a line, either in drawings, paintings, watercolors, or prints, or through a stream of letters, pamphlets, and catalogs. "No Day Without A Line Whistler in the Archives of American Art", Archives of American Art New York Regional Gallery October 16, 2003 – January 9, 2004
Whistler had a very unusual life and was one of the very first international artists. He was born in Massachusetts in 1834, moved to Russia at the age of 9 and lived as a teenager in St Petersburg and studied drawing at the imperial Academy of Science. On his return to the USA he enrolled at the United States Military Academy West Point - and studied art - but was dismissed for being deficient in chemistry! He then trained as an etcher with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.

In 1855 he sailed for Europe to train as an artist at the Ecole Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin in Paris and at the atelier of the Swiss-born artist Charles Gleyre. He apparently was not a good student and found cafe life on the Left Bank more congenial.

He was fluently bilingual and a committed member of the avant garde. I don't think I've ever come across a list of places where an artist has trained as diverse as those finding a place in Whistler's CV - who wouldn't be avant garde with that sort of CV by the age of 21!

While remaining a US citizen all his life, he never returned to the USA and latterly made his home in England.

Influences on the art of James McNeill Whistler

The influences on his art were many and various.
  • while studying in Paris he made copies of paintings in the Louvre
  • he had a passion for the Dutch Masters - Jan Steen, Rembrandt and Ruysdael
  • Velaquez inspired his approach to portraiture
  • he was a friend of Henri Fantin-Latour,
  • he was part of the circle of realist painters associated with Gustave Courbet who started the Realism Movement in France. Corbet aimed to portray people and places truthfully.
  • In 1863, he moved to live in Lindsay Row in Chelsea where one his neighbours was Dante Gabriel Rosetti, a key member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
  • he wished at one time that he had been a pupil of Ingres - and developed a a series of paintings of classically draped women and flowers on a musical theme, known as the 'Six Projects' (Freer Gallery of Art)
  • he responded to Baudelaire's call for landscapes to represent modern subject matter - including cityscapes.
  • he became a devotee of the cult of the Japanese print and oriental art and decoration in general.
  • his oil paintings were influenced by the treatment of light and the watercolours of JMW Turner
Whistler came under the influence of the Realists when he studied art in Paris. They responded to a call from the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire to reject academic subjects, such as history and mythology, and instead paint the life of the city streets around them. Whistler brought this approach with him to London in 1859, where he painted the heavily-polluted Thames in earthy blacks and browns. He also studied Turner's paintings, using increasingly fluid paint in order to capture the unique atmospheric conditions of the smog-filled city. (Tate Gallery Turner Whistler Monet Exhibition 2005)
Early Etchings

He first achieved critical success with etchings of nature and working class life in rural France - called "Twelve Etchings from Nature" and referred to as "The French Set". This reflected the influence of Courbet and the the school of Realism. These etchings were hung at the Salon and Royal Academy in 1859.
In 1858 Whistler set out to see the paintings of Rembrandt in Amsterdam, but lack of funds cut short his journey. Instead he toured northern France, Luxembourg and the Rhineland, taking his sketchbooks and etching plates with him. These small copper plates were easy to carry and he could draw spontaneously and directly from nature.......Though Whistler failed to reach the Dutch capital, a selection of rural views from his travels – drawn from nature in the careful and unglamorous manner of the French Barbizon artists – was included as part of his series of prints, the ‘French set’......As with all his prints, Whistler made a careful selection of papers for his impressions, and in the case of the ‘French set’ these were printed on chine collé, a laid oriental paper. (National Gallery of Australia - An artist abroad the prints of James McNeill Whistler 25 March – 10 July 2005)
His success with the 'French set' led him to move to London where he began twelve etchings of the river called "The Thames Set" of which the etching at the top of this post is one example. I saw this particular work at the Turner Whistler Monet exhibition in Paris and was very struck by the excellence of his drawing skills and etching ability. The depiction of contemporary city life in the Thames Set was praised by Baudelaire. Whistler was now established at the forefront of etching. (Those interested in his etchings might like to check out the exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia and the website for the The Whistler Etchings Project.

Whistler's work then changed dramatically in the 1860s when he became influenced by Asian Art and Japanese prints.

He also produced a major series of etchings of Venice later in life - of which more later.


The following sources provide helpful biographical material about James McNeill Whistler.
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  1. Glad to see that your blogger problems have been resolved. Yes, Whistler was certainly a great innovator. Did you see the Turner, Whistler and Monet show at Tate Britain a couple of years ago? It was excellent.

  2. It certainly was. I saw the exhibition in Paris in the autumn of 2004. It was a great treat - and I've got the catalogue which is my current bedtime reading.

  3. a very interesting and informative post this one :)

  4. What a beautiful etching. I saw "Turner Whistler Monet" at the Tate in 2005 and was astounded to find that although I thought I knew Monet and Turner pretty well, I had never realised what a great artist Whistler was. Those nocturnes!

  5. Do you know on which sketch Whistler inscribed 'Nulla dies sine linea' - I'd love to see it! Thanks


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