Off the Beaten Path: Early Works by James McNeill Whistler
French Set and Related Works
We have clean consciences and can hold up our heads, for during this extraordinary journey we have worked very hard—have made more progress than we could have made otherwise in three times the number of months… .
Whistler to Deborah Haden, October 1858
Although Whistler’s two-month summer trip through the Rhineland ended abruptly, it resulted in numerous drawings and watercolors, some of which he later turned into etchings. When he returned to Paris in October 1858, he completed his first series, titled Twelve Etchings after Nature, or the French Set, which he dedicated to his brother-in-law Seymour Haden. An early preliminary drawing of the title page shows Delannoy wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sketching in Cologne.
Works created during the Rhineland trip focus largely on Dutch-inspired genre scenes of everyday life. Whistler’s commitment to Realism unifies these diverse views of the countryside, peasants, and interiors. Such images can be thought of as a way for the artist to experiment with formal compositions and studies in perspective. The origins of several etchings in the French Setcan be traced back to this trip. Sketches, such as A Street Scene, prepared the way for later etchings, among them, A Street at Saverne.
With the publication of the French Set in Paris and London late in 1858, Whistler achieved his goal of establishing himself as a professional artist. The successful marketing of the twelve etchings in this set helped launch a prolific career that continued for nearly fifty years.