By LIZ HAGER
As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of colour.
—James McNeill Whistler, The Red Rag, 1878
James McNeill Whistler, Venetian Scene, 1879-80, chalk and pastel on brown paper, 11 5/8 x 7 15/16″ (New Britain Museum of American Art).
In the fall of 1879, like many artists before him, James McNeill Whistler arrived in Venice to capture his artistic view of the city. Ostensibly on a 3-month project, Whistler was immediately seduced by the possibilities the city presented and wound up spending 14 months there, eventually producing some 50 etchings and nearly 100 pastels. There can be no doubt that La Serenissima was Whistler’s ultimate muse: she called forth an original and exciting body of work that pushed the artist farther along the stylistic path staked out by his earlier Nocturnes, redeemed his artistic reputation and, it might be argued, spared him from future obscurity. Although the etchings are perhaps the better known pieces, his pastel from this period are true gems and have been no less influential in securing the artist’s legacy.
Ex-patriot Whistler struggled arduously for decades in London to establish his reputation as an artist outside the tradition of the Royal Academy. By the late 1860s he was accepted, if begrudgingly (his flamboyant personality often got in the way), as a serious and provocative artist, who enjoyed steady patronage. Thoughout the 1870s, however, patronage declined, thereby increasing his financial woes. This situation was certainly accelerated by the artist’s break with Frederick Leyland over the obstinate handling (by the customs of the time) of this patron’s Peacock Room (1877). However, the ultimate nail in Whistler’s financial coffin came a year later with settlement of the libel suit he had brought against John Ruskin following the critic’s denigrating reviewof Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (the famous “I… never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”)
Ironically, Whistler won the suit, but was ordered to pay his barrister with the last of his savings. In May of 1879, the artist declared bankruptcy.
James McNeill Whistler, Nocture—San Giorgio, 1880, chalk and pastel on brown paper, 7 15/16 x 11 3/4″ (Freer Gallery of Art).
Fortunately, in June of that year, The Fine Art Society in London, where Whistler occasionally exhibited, commissioned him with a sizable advance to produce a dozen etchings, scenes of Venice that could be exhibited in time for the Christmas holidays. And so Whistler came to Venice. As requests from Whistler for more money arrived on their doorstep throughout the fall, the Society must have worried that it was being swindled. But the artist stubbornly remained in Venice; he surely sensed the unique opportunity that lay before him.
Well aware of the precedent set by other artists—in the tradition of verdute, painted pictorial souvenirs in the era before photography—Whistler was single-minded in his intent to forge vision of the city that was different. As a result, he eschewed the grand tourist spots, the motifs of Guardi and Canaletto, for the “everyday” Venice of Venetians. “Little canals and calli, doorways and gardens, beggars and bridges made a stronger appeal to him than churches and palaces.” (Pennells, The Life of James McNeill Whistler.) The everyday was not new subject matter for the artist; in London he chose gritty Battersea over the more established Westminster locales for his series of Nocturnes. Additionally, the artist became famous in Venetian artistic circles for his iconoclastic habit of sketching directly on copper plates in situ, perhaps an echo of the traditions he had observed during his time in France, but certainly a purposeful habit, which made the prints useless as realistic souvenirs.
James McNeill Whistler, San Giovanni Apostato et Evangelistae, 1880, chalk, pastel, and charcoal on brown paper, 11 3/4 x 7 15/16″ (Freer Gallery of Art).
As the Venetian winter set in and his copper plates became too cold to handle, Whistler increasingly turned to the pastel medium. Fellow artist Henry Woods observed: “He soon found out the beautiful quality of colour there is here before sunset in winter.” (Pennells, The Life of James McNeill Whistler.) Indeed, in Whistler’s hands pastel turned out to be a brilliant medium for capturing the atmospheric mysteries of the city. By reducing his line work to the scantiest detail, and his color to just dabs of accent, Whistler was nevertheless able to convey the essence of the scene, whether weighty and substantial, in the case of building facades, or ephemeral, in the case of the open water scenes.
Whistler was masterful in the composition of his scenes, starting in the middle of his page and working outward. Contemporary follower Australian Mortimer Menpes records Whistler’s own exposition:
Whistler began by “first of all by seizing upon the chief point of interest,—the little palaces and the shipping beneath the bridge. If so, I would begin drawing that distance in elaborately, and then would expand from it until I came to the bridge, which I would draw in one broad sweep. If by chance I did not see the whole of the bridge, I would not put it in. In this way the picture must necessarily be a perfect thing from start to finish. Even if one were to be arrested in the middle of it, it would still be a fine and complete picture.”
—Mortimer Menpes, Whistler as I knew Him, 1904, pp 22-23
Additionally, the artist’s innovative use of the vertically-oriented panorama (e.g. Venetian Scene above) was a most effective way to capture the expansive stretches of water that so fundamentally define Venice. It was oft imitated by the generations of artists who followed him to Venice.
Though colored paper was first used for drawing by artists in the Renaissance, Whistler recognized the importance of color and pattern in his work and was fastidious in his choice of paper texture and tone. The Venetian pastels demonstrate his exceptional use of paper color as a medium-spectrum tone in its own right. These rendering techniques infused Whistler’s images with a delicacy and transience that feels so fundamentally Venetian. At dimensions no larger than 7 x 11″, the Venetian pastels are Whistler’s visual haikus, gifts to his captivating muse.
James McNeill Whistler, The Guidecca, Note in Flesh Tones, 1879-80, chalk and pastel on gray paper, 6 1/4 x 9 15/16″ (Mead Art Museum).
Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell—The Life of James McNeill Whistler
Margaret F.MacDonald—Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice
Linda Merrill—After Whistler