James McNeill Whistler

by mitchellgallery

Prints of Venice 7

I have learned to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived… 

In 1879, American artist James McNeill Whistler arrived in Italy with a commission from the Fine Arts Society of London to produce twelve etchings of Venice. In the course of fourteen months, Whistler produced a body of prints that now is among his most distinguished work. His work captures the “Venice of the Venetians.” His prints depict back alleys, side canals, palazzo entries, private courtyards; places most known to the Venetian, only stumbled upon by the tourist. While in representing the canaled city through its architecture, his work rarely depicted Venice’s most famous monuments and if so, only in background features.

A leading advocate of “art for art’s sake,” his work is a harsh dismissal of art in the service of state, official religion, or moral justification. Art itself is simple justified by being art. “Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand along… and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like,” he wrote. In this, his work is simply is what it is; the Venice depicted in his work is simply Venice – a city of Venetians. This is what Whistler sought to capture. In showing such a real depiction of the most intimate spaces of Venice, his work is honest; it is raw with the unique atmospherics of Venice. The viewer is able to the city through the eyes of a Venetians. One can feel the bustle of the early morning market, the gentle lapping of water against the gondolas, hear the muffled tap of feet walking across dusty stone walkways. Whistler’s work, ingenious in such an novel approach, inspired others to re-see cities and the way in which people interact in their city. In 1907, American critic Charles Caffin wrote:

“[Whistler] did better than attract a few followers and imitators; he influenced the whole world of art. Consciously, or unconsciously, his presence is felt in countless studios; his genius permeates modern artistic thought.”

Famed among his “pupils” are Ernest David Roth, John Taylor Arms, Louis Rosenberg, Fabio Mauroner, Sydney Litten, and many others who celebrate Whistler’s revolutionary vision of Venice, architecture, and “art for art’s sake.”

Holly Huey – St. John’s College student

Photo credit: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Riva I, From Venice, A Series of Twelve Etchings, 1879-1880

(Search for Whistler’s famous signature – a stylized butterfly with a long stinger for a tail. The symbol is apt in combining the two aspects of his personality; his art is characterized by a  subtle delicacy, while his public character was combative.)