Ann Arbor Weather:
Tuesday July 23, 2019
Follow us: facebook twitter RSS feed

On Beauty and the Everyday

Whistler's prints at UMMA

by Grant Mandarino

Published in November, 2010

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

...continued below...


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.     (end of article)

[Originally published in November, 2010.]

 

 
Bookmark and Share
Print Comment E-mail

You might also like:

Heavenly Metal Closes
Vicki Honeyman's new chapter
Sabine Bickford
Restaurants with Senior Discounts
A clickable zoomable map
Today's Events
Bed And Breakfasts
Quinn Evans Grows
Richard Hess says the news felt almost "too good to be true.
Patrick Dunn
Clothing And Jewelry in Saline
Delis, Sandwiches and Subs Restaurants
The Treeline, at Last
How an improbable sale set the stage for a west-side pathway.
Jan Schlain
Charles Whitman House
June 2019 I Spy
Sally Bjork
Erratic Ale Looks for a Fall Opening
A Dexter "nanobrewery" is in the works.
Sabine Bickford
Ann Arbor Observer 2019 readership survey
A visitor's guide to Ann Arbor