Whistler in Venice

By Duane Wakeham

In September 1879, after being forced to declare bankruptcy, artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler traveled to Venice, Italy, hoping to reestablish his reputation as an artist and to make a financial comeback. The trip was made possible by a commission from the Fine Arts Society, a commercial London gallery, to produce a set of 12 etchings in three months. Whistler was advanced ?150 on a promised fee of ?1,200. The stipulated 12 works were not completed at the end of the three months. Instead, Whistler stayed on in Venice for more than a year, returning to London unannounced in November 1880 with nearly 50 etchings, a few paintings—and almost 100 pastels.

Twelve etchings that Whistler selected as the first Venice set “caused disappointingly little comment” when they were exhibited at the Fine Arts Society in December 1880. A month later—once again at the Fine Arts Society—53 of the pastels were exhibited. According to biographers, E.R. and J. Pennell, “Nothing in the various phases of Whistler’s art is more astonishing than the storm of praise and abuse raised by the Venetian pastels …” One satirical publication suggested that his purpose in showing the pastels was to deter tourists from visiting Venice, but as he [Whistler] had written to the gallery director: “… I shall bring 50 or 60, if not more, pastels … and [they] will sell; I don’t see how they can help it.” Even though the work struck many as “unfinished,” the exhibition was a major success, earning Whistler ?1,800 and restoring him to solvency.

How He Worked
Whistler’s Venice pastels were mostly views of hidden courtyards and passages, quiet back canals and small bridges, rather than the city’s more familiar landmarks. Both his choice of subject and his handling of the pastels convey an appealing sense of intimacy. The artist worked on small sheets of colored paper—mostly a beautiful brown—that provided a sympathetic middle value foundation for simple black-chalk line drawings to which he added a few touches of color. Some critics noted that “in the containment of the colors within black borders and in the intensity of their hues,” the Venetian pastel studies resembled stained glass windows.

Whistler applied pastel either as dots or strokes of color made with the end of the crayon or by dragging the side of a pastel stick across the surface of the paper to cover broad areas. According to Otto Bacher, a young American art student who was studying in Venice at the time, “[Whistler] always carried two boxes of pastels, an older one for instant use, filled with little bits of strange broken colors of which he was very fond, and a newer box with which he did his principal work.” Bacher also reported that Whistler’s little portfolio contained sheets of “varnished or silver-coated paper to place over the drawing, when finished.”

A Closer Look
Most, if not all, of Whistler’s Venetian pastels qualify as sketches or studies because much of the paper’s surface remains unworked. The Storm—Sunset, shown here, is more fully developed. Dragging darker tones gently across the rough surface of the paper, Whistler transforms the color of the paper into the light from the sky as it’s reflected in the broad lagoon. In contrast, all color above the water line is stronger and applied with a bolder hand.

Perhaps because The Storm—Sunset is about an atmospheric effect, rather than about architecture, drawing is minimal. On the left, the church, Santa Maria della Salute, can be identified by its domes, darkly silhouetted against the sunset sky. At right, the Campanile bell tower is loosely drawn with just a few strokes of added color. The Doge’s Palace is defined mostly by the absence of drawing and color. Whistler didn’t fail to include the reflection of the bell tower and it’s interesting to note that the top of the Campanile appears to connect with the dark storm cloud above and its reflection flows into that of the storm cloud that darkens the foreground water. Although, in principle, Whistler had abolished narrative from his paintings, it’s difficult to ignore that his placement of the gondola—as the darkest, most prominent shape in the painting—combined with the strong diagonal as the small vessel heads out into the open lagoon, lends a certain element of urgency to the image. (Also interesting, above and to the left of the gondola is a curious configuration of lines, which, when viewed upside down, appear to be the dome of Santa Maria della Salute, suggesting the start of an earlier drawing. Bacher confirms that Whistler would take a sheet of paper on which he had drawn, rotate it, and begin another, unrelated drawing on top of it.)

Between the quiet, uniform, horizontal strokes and subtle variation of closely-related colors that depict the large open expanse of water and the heavy cloud shapes massed above, a one-and-a-half-inch band of strong, rich, vigorously applied color cuts across the full width of the image. The bold strokes of color that represent a winter sunset above the buildings that line the Grand Canal provide the greatest visual impact of the study. Whistler all but obliterated his initial drawing of the structures along the canal with a broadly-applied layer of a deep, violet-blue, above which he added curious squiggles of a lighter, more intense blue at the far left and right of center. That color—whatever it refers to— is reflected in the water below. Above, slashes of both warm and cool yellow and soft red-orange define a fading sunset, while patches of light turquoise applied over the cool yellow—perhaps representing clear sky—provide a curious and somewhat foreign color accent. Whistler added three short-hand-like strokes of yellow on either side of the Campanile; somewhat similar yellow lines appear to pass behind the domes of the Salute.

Dark clouds fill the top of the composition. In the largest cloud at the right and to a lesser degree in the central silvery cloud, Whistler opted to do some blending. It was a technique he employed infrequently, preferring instead to apply pigment directly to the textured surface of the paper. Perhaps it lends a sense of leadenness to the storm cloud, but I find the rubbed area somewhat distracting. He added an interesting atmospheric note with his use of silvery blue that introduces a chill to the underlying warmth of the image created by the tone of the paper. The Storm, Sunset is one of only a few studies in which Whistler turned his attention to recording atmospheric effects and time of year.

The work is believed to have been created at a window of the rooming house on the Riva degli Schiavoni where Whistler and Maud Franklin, his mistress at the time, took up residence. Other occupants of the building included a group of young American artists, among them the previously mentioned Otto Bacher, John Twatchman, and Robert Blum. Blum, who two years later would co-founded the American Society of Painters in Pastel with William Merritt Chase, did a pencil drawing of Whistler working at an open window.

After Venice
The fourteen months that Whistler spent in Venice comprised his only visit to that city, but the work he did there would greatly influenced the way the pastelists and etchers who followed would see and depict the city. In describing his Venetian pastels, the Pennells wrote: “The beauty is altogether in the suggestion of color, the arrangement of lines that he hints at. It is all suggestion.” And it was his focus on those elements that make Whistler one of the acknowledged precursors of 20th century formal abstraction.

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