Fine Impressions: Whistler, Freer, and Venice
In 1887, museum founder Charles Lang Freer purchased the entire Second Venice Set, twenty-six atmospheric etchings by James McNeill Whistler. Freer acquired the prints—his first works by Whistler—after his business associate, New York attorney Howard Mansfield, invited him to inspect some especially “fine impressions” of etchings by the artist.
Up to that point, Freer had been uninterested in works by the expatriate American. “Why anyone in the world should make any fuss over Whistler as an artist” was, he said, beyond him. Viewing Mansfield’s collection changed Freer’s mind. As he later remarked to Mansfield, “My purchasing, I recall, began the day thereafter, and has continued ever since whenever opportunity has offered.”
Freer’s precipitous act marked the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership with Whistler. The mutually beneficial relationship between collector and artist eventually led to the founding of the Freer Gallery, today the world’s largest and finest repository of works by Whistler.
The Second Venice Set is well known within Whistler’s oeuvre. It has most frequently been exhibited to highlight changes in Whistler’s style and to underscore the popularity of Venice as a tourist destination and artistic subject. Fine Impressions, however, tells the story from Freer’s perspective: how his epiphany in Mansfield’s apartment and his acquisition of the Second Venice Set catalyzed a shift in taste and came to shape his legacy as a connoisseur and collector.
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