Etchings, for me, have a kind of visual magic.
There is something about the character of etched lines that is entrancing in a way quite distinct from other forms of drawing or graphics.
I find it hard to isolate exactly why. Partly, I suppose, it’s the fine line available with an etching needle and carefully prepared plate, and the process by which the ink is transferred to the usually off-white paper, producing muted value contrasts.
A major part of the appeal, though, I think I can assign to the approach and style of line that the medium seems to inspire in its masters — a kind of casual, quick hatching, almost scribbled in places, that is at once subtle and dramatic, quiet and lively, tonal and linear, hard edged and remarkably soft.
Of all of the artists who are masters of etching, my favorites are Rembrandt and Whistler.
They are from different times and sensibilities and have very different approaches as painters, but share a command of the qualities of etching that brings the medium to its highest level.
No doubt Whistler was aware of and studied Rembrandt’s etchings, taking many lessons from the master, as well as the numerous other influences available to him, and putting them in service of his own sensibilities.
In some ways, I think Whistler actually surpasses Rembrandt, particularly in his use of lines to suggest softness, as in his sensitive portraits.
Etchings, by their nature, are drawings meant for reproduction; the artist could make many impressions of his original drawing and sell them, signed and numbered as a limited series, less expensively than paintings.
While Rembrandt’s subjects were often Biblical, Whistler followed the new path of the young artists of his day in taking his subjects from the real world — in particular in scenes of London and Venice.
When I first wrote about Whistler’s etchings back in 2006, the resources available for viewing them on the web were quite limited.
The internet, bless its big ol’ silicon heart, is constantly serving up new resources, and among the best since my original article are the amazing high-resolution collections on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.
They have an extensive and superb collection of Whistler’s etchings, and have made most of them available in high resolution.
The link I’m providing is just a search of the collection for the terms Whistler and etching. At the bottom of the page is navigation to subsequent pages and a selection of how many results to view per page.
When you click through to an individual image, click on “Fullscreen” under the image and then use the zoom controls at upper left, or even better the Download arrow a lower right, to view the high resolution images.
Bear in mind as you view the etchings that you are essentially seeing them magnified; Whistler’s originals are not large, perhaps 5×7 to 8×10″ (13×18 to 20x25cm) or similar for most of them.
For more information, see my previous post on Whistler’s etchings, in which I recommend some books, and also describe the etching process.
If you respond to the magic of the etched line as I do, I’ll give the selection of Whistler’s etchings on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website my Major Timesink Warning. I could get lost there for hours, wandering through his beautifully drawn intimate views of London wharves and Venetian canals.