Lines and Colors art blog

Whistler’s etchings (round 2)

Whistler's etchings
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.


7 responses to “Whistler’s etchings (round 2)”

  1. I had the privilege of viewing a large collection of Whistler etchings at an exhibition at the University of Michigan in 2010

    I was deeply impacted by the level of craftsmanship that went into each print. I was wrestling through some etchings of my own at the time, and found an unexpected sense of comfort in viewing first-hand the level of perfectionism that Whistler showed in the progression of his working proofs.

    Of all the prints I saw, the ones that impacted me the most were his drypoint portraits…. particularly the portrait of Annie Haden (to say I was transfixed would be an understatement)…

    Unfortunately no reproduction, print or screen, comes close to capturing the level of detail and life found in those eyes. There is something daring and magical about the drypoint process at this level. The draftsman has to nail it right off the bat or the soft response of the metal will be lost in the proofing process. The level to which Whistler harnessed the power of this technique blew my mind and it was one of those moments of reawakening where my heart knew I was viewing a true master of his craft.

    Ah yes, I remember…THIS is why I love art.

    1. Thanks for your personal experience and insight, Joel. I agree that etchings reveal their subtleties in person, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some by both Rembrandt and Whistler, but in lieu of that, high resolution images like these, or good color reproductions in books, are as close as we can get.

  2. i use to do etchings in college and fell in love with the process. until i looked at these etchings i had forgotten that. i may have to revisit it as i am enamored with the quality of line you can achieve with etchings…altho Whistler was a genius at it!!

    the woman with the umbrella…omg…it just moves me…so incredibly beautiful!!

  3. Heare’s a post by Suzanne Fagence Cooper, looking for the site of Black Lion Wharf in London, one of the locations pictured above.


  4. Last year the Berkeley Art Museum had a show of 40 of Whister’s etchings. I was the only arts journalist in the Bay Area to write about it; the museum was so ho-hum about this fantastic show which was a real shame.

  5. Thanks for that ..i have just resurfaced
    Peter K