On Beauty and the Everyday
Whistler's prints at UMMA
by Grant Mandarino
There are two reasons to visit the current University of Michigan Museum of Art exhibit, On Beauty and the Everyday: The Prints of James McNeill Whistler. One is for its unparalleled look at the artist rightly described as "easily the greatest etcher of modern times." The other is for its informative presentation of the various printmaking techniques Whistler 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.
Never prone to staying in a single location for too long, Whistler moved to London in 1859 and there began a series based on
the docklands along the River Thames. Several of these prints are busy cityscapes populated by ships, workers, and bridges, while others focus on the shifting moods that accompany daybreak and nightfall. Lithography, with its charcoal rubbing-like appearance, is perfect for these atmospheric works. Nocturne (1878), a haunting image of a foggy London, is the best of these. The play of light Whistler achieves here is pure magic, unmatched by even his final Venetian prints.
The exhibition, on display through November 28, recognizes the wide range of Whistler's talent--which extends far beyond the famously solemn 1871 painting of his mother.
[Originally published in November, 2010.]