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Whistler in Venice: The First Set of Etchings
Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.357.4880 ext. 319
Barbara Kram: 202.357.4880 ext. 219
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Whistler in Venice: The First Set of Etchings

The scene in the Freer Gallery of Art's ground floor corridor (Jefferson Drive and 12th Street S.W.) will change from London to Venice when etchings of that Italian city by the expatriate American artist, James McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) go on view July 1. "Whistler in Venice: The First Set of Etchings" remains open until Jan. 13, 2002. This exhibition explores Whistler's response to Venice by bringing together the etchings he selected for inclusion in the first of his two portfolios of Venetian prints.

Best known for his oil paintings and the flamboyant blue-and-green "Peacock Room," also on view at the Freer, Whistler's first critical success was as an etcher. By 1870, he was widely acknowledged to be the greatest print-maker since Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 - 1669). A colorful and controversial figure, Whistler lived beyond his means throughout the 1870s, building an expensive London home and spending a fortune on his legally successful but financially devastating libel suit against the art critic John Ruskin. Having also alienated his most important patron, Frederick Leyland, Whistler declared bankruptcy in May 1879 and creditors seized his home.

It was at this desperate hour that a commercial art gallery hired the artist to complete 12 etchings of Venice, giving him an advance to live on. Arriving there in September 1879, Whistler transferred his etcher's eye from the more gritty aspects of London's River Thames to Italy's fabled floating city. As with his Thames etchings (on view at the Freer through June 17), Whistler concentrated less on the city's glamorous tourist spots than on its backwater canals and decaying palazzos, thereby distinguishing his work from the Venetian paintings of Canaletto, Turner and Guardi.

Whistler worked while seated in a gondola or standing on shore. Influenced by Japanese wood block printers such as Hiroshige and Hokusai, his compositional technique in these Venetian etchings focused on central images while blurring peripheral objects. He used larger plates than usual for these etchings and dentist's tools rather than two-ended etching needles. He made numerous impressions of the 12 prints, often reworking his copper plates as he printed them by adding, removing and shading lines. Distinctions between impressions also reflect the artist's choice of paper, the color and viscosity of the ink used and the degree to which he wiped the printing plate before putting it through the press.

Initially planning to stay for only a few months, Whistler remained in Venice for over a year, producing several oil paintings, 100 pastels and more than 50 of his most beautiful etchings. The Freer Gallery of Art has 46 different impressions of the 12 images in the First Venice Set, no two of them alike. Twenty-eight can be seen in this exhibition, which includes beautiful impressions of some of the most powerful engravings Whistler ever made.

Highlights include three strikingly different impressions of Whistler's famous nighttime view of the Venetian Lagoon "Nocturne" and a spectacular example of his eerie view of "Two Doorways" on a back canal. Please contact the Office of Public Affairs & Marketing for downloadable images.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries' Web site at

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