- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

It continues to be a big year for artist James McNeill Whistler, who died 100 years ago. A great innovator in painting who helped clear the way for later experimental styles such as impressionism and cubism, he also was the greatest figure in the history of modern etching, ranked second only to Rembrandt as a master in the medium. Not coincidentally, it also has been a banner year for the Freer Gallery of Art, which owns the most comprehensive collection of Whistlers in the world, primarily through the artist’s friendship with Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), the gallery’s founder. Indeed, it was Whistler who encouraged Freer to collect the Asian art that formed his great collection. Thus, it’s only fitting that Whistler is getting his due in his celebratory centennial year with three exhibits at the Freer, the second of which, “Whistler’s Greatest Etchings: The Amsterdam Set of 1889,” is now on display at the gallery. (The series culminates in November with the highly unusual “Mr. Whistler’s Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London.”)

“The Amsterdam Set” shows how the artist combined the realism and detail of earlier prints made in Paris and London (1858-1861) with the looser, more subjective style of his later Venice prints (1879-1880) to create the unusually elaborate etchings he made in Amsterdam in late 1889. The artist considered them his greatest prints, a judgment widely shared by collectors and art historians.

As with his pastels, shown earlier in the year in “Whistler in Venice: The Pastels,” Whistler’s prints are rare. Finding that the pressure of the printing press wore down his unusually intricate and delicate line work, he only printed about 30 impressions of each, as he was unwilling to produce less than first-rate impressions.

“The Embroidered Curtain,” from the set, is widely considered Whistler’s greatest print. He etched the cobblestones with short, hooked strokes. He used tightly bunched, short, zigzag lines for the brick fronts of the houses. He outlined the embroidered curtain behind the window to the right with open, circular strokes and thickly crosshatched the dark interior. Outside, he used layers of crosshatchings to create reflections on the water’s surface. While carefully outlining standing figures with rat-tat-tat parallel lines, the artist drew moving figures, like the children on the right, with looser, sketchier lines reminiscent of the Venice etchings.

In the informative introductory section of the exhibit, curator Kenneth Myers explains that as a student in Paris, Whistler was greatly influenced by Dutch art, especially that of Rembrandt. Whistler tried to visit Amsterdam in 1858 but ran out of money before he could get there. He finally reached the city five years later, but by then he knew Rembrandt’s art well from Paris and London museums. Another conduit was through the collection of Rembrandt prints owned by Seymour Haden, his brother-in-law. Whistler regularly visited Holland in the 1880s, but it wasn’t until 1889 that he would stay long enough to produce a major group of etchings.

Mr. Myers exhibits Whistler’s “La Mere Gerard” (1858) next to a reproduction of a Rembrandt “Peasant” to show Whistler’s use of a thick web of Rembrandt-esque crosshatching for a psychologically charged shadow. The American also created some dozen portraits between 1859 and 1862 — the exhibit’s “Mr. Davis” (1860) is one — in emulation of Rembrandt’s. In “Amsterdam, From the Tolhuis” (1863), Whistler for the first time shows his appreciation of empty space. With its windmills set low on the horizon, Amsterdam seems to exult under an expansive, empty sky.

Whistler’s flowering as a printmaker is represented in a section of the exhibit called “Growth of a Master Printmaker.” Whistler had arrived in Amsterdam in late August 1889. Not given to modesty, he already was bragging to one of his London dealers about his new work: “… What I have already begun is of far finer quality than all that has gone before — combining the minuteness of detail … of the Thames etchings … with the greater freedom and more beauty of execution than even the Venice set … .”

Mr. Myers is careful to explain for those of us unschooled in print techniques that Whistler created different effects depending on the way he inked his printing plates. He could, for example, wipe the plate almost clean for a light effect or leave excess ink on the plate’s surface for subtle tonal effects. Or, for an etching, the curator tells us, Whistler coated a copper plate with an acid-resistant “ground” and then drew through it to expose the copper. He then brushed the plate with acid, which “etched” or “bit” his lines into the metal, forming shallow grooves for holding the printing ink.

For a drypoint, a kind of etching, Whistler used a sharp steel needle to draw lines directly into the plate’s surface and create coils of copper, or “burrs,” for catching extra ink. They create rich, dark lines in the printing.

In the etchings and drypoints on the last wall of the exhibit, we see what print guru Arthur M. Hind meant when he wrote in his “History of Engraving and Etching” that “no etcher has ever known better than Whistler what can be achieved by the unfilled space.”

“Zaandam” (1889), for example — the last pure landscape the artist etched — has the unusually low vantage point of many of his etchings of Amsterdam. (Zaandam is just a short boat trip from the larger city.) There’s a large watery foreground area with an even bigger stretch of empty sky above.

Whistler used most of the guns in his technical arsenal in these 1889 Amsterdam prints. He liked to play with light effects, as in “The Mill.” Here, Whistler looks into a darkened paint mill to the sun-streaked windmills beyond.

The artist’s long fascination with night scenes found expression in his famous “nocturnes” of the 1870s. In this exhibit’s haunting, almost frightening “Nocturne: Dance-House,” he layered networks of lines, just as Rembrandt had done in his famous night etchings.

In “Balcony, Amsterdam,” Whistler contrasted broad, open areas of line work to delineate the water and buildings with more detailed drawing, a la “The Embroidered Curtain.” His handling of the scintillating reflections in the water led to his etching of “Pierrot” — the image he once wrote was his favorite Amsterdam print.

While Mr. Myers does his best to explain how etchings and drypoints are made, the vernacular of printmaking can be confusing. However, pictures often can clarify what words cannot, and photographs of print processes showing artists working at their plates and presses would have been helpful here. Hopefully, the Freer will consider this method for future exhibitions.

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