James Abbott McNeill Whistler, ‘THE TRAGHETTO, NO. 2’, 1879, Christopher-Clark Fine Art

Whistler's Venetian etchings are one of the greatest achievements of his art. He went to Venice in late 1879, but he had been planning a visit since 1876. His cataclysmic financial state had delayed the trip, however, until a commission, and a check from the Fine Art Society in September 1879 enabled him to go with the purpose of making 12 etchings.

In Venice Whistler continued to explore the themes and variations which had preoccupied him for years, demonstrating the consistency of his formal concerns. While his subjects are attractive and capture the feeling of the city, he was not interested in subject as an end in itself. Upon close examination it appears that his interest lay in the more purely abstract elements of the composition, and that the subject played an increasingly incidental role. This was anticipated in the portrait “arrangements” of the 1870’s, and in the decoration for the “Peacock Room.” In his pamphlet Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room of 1877, Whistler maintained that the peacock motif was only a “means” of carrying out a formal arrangement in gold on blue and blue on gold.

Looked at in this context, the Venice etchings can be divided into groups, each of which explores a similar theme with formal variations, and can be seen as the logical outgrowth of Whistler’s early work in the medium.

Whistler continued to explore the decorative and spatial possibilities of figures in doorways which he had first explored in 1858. This idea was extended the following year to include a succession of doorways and courtyards. In Venice he used the magnificent arched doorways with their cast iron grillwork and mysterious inner spaces to great advantage, as well as the narrow covered passageways which link the calli and often open into canals.

Here Whistler depicts boatmen lounging at a table as they wait for foot passengers wishing to be carried west across the Grand Canal at the traghetto (ferry) station of Santi Apostoli. The site has been identified as the courtyard of the Ca’ da Mosto, close by the Rialto Bridge in the Cannaregio district of Venice.

Series: Hand-signed in pencil with the artist’s butterfly monogram and annotated “imp.” on a tab below the platemark lower left (indicating that the impression was printed by Whistler himself), also signed in the plate with the butterfly monogram at the left edge.

Publisher: Fine Art Society, London

Margaret F. MacDonald, Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice, LundHumphries, Hampshire, 2001, no. 99, p. 85 (ill.);

James McNeill Whistler: The Venetian Etchings, Art Partnership International Ltd., London, 2001, no. 9, p. 30 (ill.);

David Park Curry, James McNeill Whistler: Uneasy Pieces, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 2004, no. 37, p. 370 (ill.).

About James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler changed the course of art history with his radical techniques and adoption of Asian design principles, which emphasized a two-dimensional flattening of painted forms and their arrangement into abstract patterns. A London-based expatriate, Whistler embraced and promoted the doctrine that art should not serve narrative, but rather project the artist’s subjective feelings through the handling of the medium. His revolutionary methods changed existing approaches to oil paint, pastel, watercolor, etching—even interior design and the decorative arts. The flat, expressive, and radically simplified forms in his Venice pastels, and his use of fluid blue and gray pigments in his abstract nocturnes, altered how his contemporaries like Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas saw and understood art. He scandalously named one of his most famous paintings Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (1871), suggesting the reduction of a portrait of his mother to an arrangement of formal elements.

American, 1834-1903, Lowell, MA, United States, based in London, United Kingdom