Thursday, May 31, 2007

Whistler Month: Whistler's Venice

The Vegetable Seller
9" x 7.5", pen and ink on card
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Whistler originally went Venice after being awarded a farthing in damages and humiliated in the libel case against Ruskin and to make some money from a commission by the Fine Art Society to produce 12 etchings of Venice. In the end he stayed for nearly 14 months and produced a huge quantity of work and, it would appear, enjoyed himself so much he had to be bribed to return home!
Whistler arrived in Venice bankrupt in the wake of a sensational libel trial against John Ruskin in London. 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. His representations of well-known landmarks, including the church of Santa Mariadella Salute and the Rialto Bridge, as well as many minor courts, alleys, and back canals, established a new and original iconography of the city. Upon his return to London, Whistler exhibited his Venice works and graduallyreassumed a leading place in the Victorian art avant-garde ("Whistler's Venice" Bookjacket).
I acquired "Whistler's Venice" by Alastair Grieve after seeing the Turner, Whistler, Monet exhibition in Paris. I was hugely impressed by Whistler's pastel drawings and etchings of Venice and wanted to know more and this book delivers! It provides:
  • information about the 50 etchings and around 100 pastels of Venice he produced during a 14 month stay - locating each work on a detailed map and comparing it to photographs of location
  • reproductions of all the work
  • details about Whistler's methods and techniques - and comparisons with others working in Venice at around the same time.
The book gives good size reproductions of both pastels and etchings. I've provided a fair few links at the end for those who like to explore further and, immediately, below are some links to images of etchings on the Internet. (The pastels are much less easy to track down although they pop up in articles and books).
  • the Smithsonian Institution: Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
I think I've worked out why I like Whistler drawings so much. He seems to have a more refined approach to drawing than the one I use. I tried to do the above study very much in the style of Whistler - and to be hones did not find it too difficult. I have a bit more of a tendency to scribble - but that could be because I was using pen and ink rather than an etching needle and plate. [Note: I can't work out the provenance of the photo (from 1870) in the book which I used for the study. Its credit is "Carlo Nyer, photograph of vegetable sellers on Rio de S. Caterina c,1870, Osvaldo Bohm." The probelm arises as both Carlo Nyer and Osvaldo Bohm are photographers who both photographed Venice!]

His pastels are incredibly difficult to emulate. His line is so sparse and economical coupled with very limited use of pastel - often leaving lots of paper showing (both under and around the scumble). This makes them very much a 'sketch' in my book. I was going to do a pastel as well - and this post may yet be updated with a pastel "after Mr Whistler". [And it now is - however mine has far too much pastel on the paper compared to his!]

What did I learn from Whistler month?

I learned a quite a few things, including a lot more about his life which was simply extraordinary! I've read more than I've written here and, as an individual, he's a very interesting if rather self-opinionated person. However - focusing on the art:
  • I very much like the value and emphasis he places on drawing and in trying to develop new ways of representing scenes.
  • I also like his compositions - he tries to find a new perspective on familiar views.
  • His 'nocturnes' and flat simplified views which drew so much criticism at the time for their 'unfinished' state would not be out of place in any contemporary art gallery.
  • I very much like the ideas he had about simplifying colour palettes, as well as motifs, and of working in harmonious palettes. That's something I shall be exploring further in future.
  • I'm certainly going to be looking back at the sketches I made and photos taken in Venice with a view to maybe creating pen and ink drawings. His etchings and paintings of the River Thames will also be enormously helpful in developing the series I'm planning.


  1. That "Vegetable Seller" is great Katherine! A lovely combination of you and Whistler - I see both influences!

    Also, a great summary on what you learned! It's so interesting to see how different an artist can be in different mediums. In one sense, it doesn't seem that the "nocturne" artist could have done some of those etchings. Can't wait for you to begin the mentioned series!

  2. I love the Vegetable Seller too! I have really enjoyed YOUR exploration of Whistler, Katherine. I got an enormous amount out of it and have given nothing back, I'm afraid. Too caught up in a macro flower 'learning exercise' - and just as I was about to put that behind me, here you are again, tempting, with Ms O'Keeffe!

  3. I've enjoyed reading about the group's study this month. Great project.

    I love The Vegetable Seller. Absolutely marvelous!

  4. The Veg. Seller is striking. It works on many levels and is a delight to look at. I think it has much to teach me, itself.
    You might be interested in seeing my friend Stan Miller's work of Venice.
    Think "Andrew Wyeth goes to Venice".

  5. Thanks for recommending Whistler in Venice. I checked it out of the library, and ... wow.

    I LOVE his drawings on brown paper.

    The tan background, the sketchy impressions of buildings/water/sky in black, and then the sketchy but intense bits of color........



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