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Wednesday May 24, 2017
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On Beauty and the Everyday

 

continued

employed--etching, drypoint, lithography--and their resulting visual effects.

Whistler, an engineer's son, learned the craft of printmaking while working for the U.S. Coastal Survey, then left for Europe in search of la vie boheme. Like many a future American twenty-something, Whistler dove into the cafe culture of Paris and forged an aesthetic identity. A self-portrait shows the artist as he no doubt saw himself: bearded and carefree, hip to the pulse of the art world's heart (and looking weirdly like a dandified Donald Sutherland).

Twelve etchings Whistler completed during this period, known as the "French set," include working-class figures set in rural areas or street scenes like those of Gustave Courbet. My favorite of the group is La Retameuse (1858), a portrait of a woman tinsmith whose potato face speaks to her weary, toilsome life. Her hardened repose could not be more different from the wispy ease of Annie Haden, a later portrait of the artist's niece.

The contrast between the two images is partially due to technique: the latter is a drypoint, resulting in smooth figurative detail, the former an etching, which displays a much crisper outline of features. But the distinction between the everyday shopwoman and the beautiful child also reflects a thematic contrast in Whistler's work, between his outdoor scenes of scrappy existence and indoor scenes of plush society. This conflict runs like a leitmotif through Whistler's prints and perhaps explains his penchant for depicting open doorways, as gateways between one world and the other.

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