James McNeill Whistler

Whistler, La Vieille aux Loques, etching 1858

La Vieille aux Loques

[The Old Rag Woman]

Kennedy 21, Mansfield, 21, Glasgow 27

etching with drypoint , 1858, a splendid early trial proof impression, the third state (of 4), with Delatre's address lower right, printed in bistre with an elaborate veil of fine plate tone (meticulously wiped locally, e.g., on the woman's bonnet and the fabric in her lap), on fine antique grayish laid paper (without a watermark), wide margins (though somewhat irregular insofar as the upper and lower left corners are missing, having ostensibly been used to repair two short tears along the left margin), several inky fingerprints in the margins, some tight localized crimping and soiling along the lower right margin (evidently from an old binding, which is also attested by a series a regularly spaced stitching holes along the right edge), with old hinges on the upper sheet edge, verso, otherwise in quite good condition

Provenance: the John H. Wrenn collection (with his wetstamp verso, Lugt 1475) *

P. 209 x 148 mm., S.  306 x 200 mm.

Whistler returned to Paris penniless from his late summer travels through Alsace and the Rhineland on 7 October 1858 with a number of copper plates and sketches, though he probably worked the plate for La Vieille aux Loques in the streets d'aprčs nature soon thereafter.  This is one of Whistler's best known early prints, and was published in his first album, Douze Eaux-fortes d'aprčs Nature (Twelve Etchings from Nature, known as the French Set), which was dedicated to his brother-in-law, Seymour Haden.  The realization of this project was crucial in the artist's artistic development. 

He began proofing the plates in Auguste Delâtre's workshop.**   While Whistler had already gained some experience in the art, Delâtre guided Whistler throughout the entire process, from the use of a Dutch mordant and multiple biting to selective wiping, allowing rich tonal effects.  Whistler's etching and printing technique evolved considerably, and this undertaking was to shape his commitment to creative printmaking for decades. 

The etching style is accomplished, with a refined sense of line in rendering space, object, contrast and texture:  rapidly drawn or meticulously appied, sometimes dense, often spare, ranging from deeply contoured to extremely fine, with deft cross-hatching in rendering a variety of values. That the plate was extensively reworked is also evident in the foul biting and trace fingerprints, showing the extent to which the ground was weakened by repeated manipulations; Whistler apparently found these "accidents" quite attractive, as no effort was made to alleviate them.

The published French Set comprised an edition of twenty impressions pulled in Paris during November and an additional fifty impressions pulled a few weeks later in London, all on chine collé.  Given Whistler's exacting determination in completing it, however, there are a number of proof impressions extant, of which our impression is characteristic.

According to Katherine Lochnan:

Before proving the plates, Delâtre probably dispatched Whistler to look for pieces of antique paper on which to pull the experimental proofs.  According to the Pennells, by 1858 Whistler was "already hunting for beautiful old paper, loitering at the boxes along the quais, tearing out flyleaves from the fine old books he found there." ***

Our impression is obviously one of these early proof impressions.  The paper is clearly not from the dual first edition, and its various "defects" point to such a scavenged origin. Glasgow furthermore mentions several impressions of the third state on anomalous papers, which seems also to show that Whistler devoted some time to proofing this print.****

In any case, given its popularity, the plate was reprinted on several occasions in the fourth state, with Delâtre's address obliterated, and subsequently cancelled.  Glasgow cites 113  known impresssions.

John Henry Wrenn was an early collector of Whistler's etchings in Chicago,  and a large part of his fine ollection was bequeathed to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924.  (The Glasgow website mentions him forty times.

**  Auguste Delâtre had originally learned the art of etching from Charles Jacque, and in 1848 he set up shop with two presses on the rue Saint-Jacques.  He became a master of the medium, experimenting novel techniques, and was instrumental in developing the  Aquafortistes movement, which renewed artistic interest in original printmaking.  (See Michel Melot, L'Estampe Impressioniste, Paris 1974.)

***  Katherine A. Lochnan, The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1984, pp. 49-59

****  Glasgow catalogue: http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk/catalogue/search/ts_display/index.php?catno=K021&rs=&q=vieille&xml=pri