James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Fine Prints: Etchings and Lithographs


Although born in Massachusetts, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) spent almost all of his life abroad, a true cosmopolitanAfter several youthful years spent in Russia (where he first learned French), he came to France in 1855, to study in Paris at the Ecole Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin and in the atelier of Charles Gleyre.

In 1858, after a tour across northern France and Rhineland, he published his first album of prints, Twelve Etchings from Nature, known as the French Set, exhibited at the Salon and Royal Academy in 1859.  Given its success, Whistler moved to London, and soon acquired an immense reputation as a master printmaker,* producing hundreds of etchings and lithographs.

His greatest printmaking achievement however may arguably be the two sets of etchings he made in Venice over the second half of the 1870s, working onsite, from nature, often quite secretively. These prints were among the most rigorously worked impressions of his career, with some, such as The Doorway, spanning twenty states!

Whistler also took up lithography in 1878, and showed himself to be a painstaking craftsman in producing them, as attested by his abundant correspondence with Thomas Way, his lithographic printer (see Spink, Stratis and Tesdeschi 1998 for a transcription).  He notably took great care in choosing the lithographic transfer paper, the page layout, as well as the paper itself for the small lifetime editions, impressions from which are now exceedingly rare. 

[NB Here we have presented the etchings first, followed by the lithographs, as they have been studies in two separate catalogues raisonnés.]

Whistler, La Vieille aux Loques, etching 1858

James Abbott McNeill Whistler  (1834 - 1903)

La Vieille aux Loques

[The Old Rag Woman]

Kennedy 21, Mansfield 21, Glasgow 27

etching, 1858, on fine, crisp, light-grayish laid paper, with wide though irregular margins (probably torn from an old ledger, as Whistler was then fond of such antique papers), a splendid third state impression of this landmark print, with a prestigious provenance

First published in Paris as part of the French Set, this etching was Whistler's first seated female profile portrait, probably drawn from nature that autumn in the streets of the city.   The rich graphic potential of the setting in a darkened doorway was a theme that Whistler would pursue and develop over the next thirty years.


James McNeill Whistler, The Doorway, 1879, etching, drypoint and roulette

James Abbott McNeill Whistler  (1834 - 1903)

The Doorway

Kennedy 188.5, Mansfield 185, Glasgow 193.10

etching, with drypoint, roulette, and carefully wiped plate-tone, 1879-80, on medium-fine laid paper with the "hunting horn in shield" watermark, trimmed to the platemark, signed on the tab, annotated and again signed on the verso by the artist, a superb and very rare early proof impression of this exceptional print

First exhibited in 1880, and published as part of Venice, a Series of Twelve Etchings (the "First Venice Set") in the same year, this print takes up one of Whister's favorite themes, depicting the elaborate Renaissance façade of the Palazzo Gussoni, then a chairbler's shop, with a young woman on the stairway at water's edge, who is shown in some states to be washing out linen.


James Whistler, Fishing Boat, etching

James Abbott McNeill Whistler  (1834 - 1903)

Fishing Boat

Kennedy 208, Mansfield 205, Glasgow 198

etching, 1879-1880, on medium-fine laid paper with the Strasbourg lily watermark, trimmed to the platemark, signed on the tab, a superb and rare 4th state impression of this fine print

First exhibited in 1883, and published as part of A Set of Twenty-six Etchings (the "Second Venice Set") in 1886, this etching depicts a moored bragozzo on the Venetian lagoon, draped in drying fishing nets, with the Santa Maria della Salute basilica and the Punta della Dogana, with its famous statue of Fortuna, in the far background, to the right.


Whistler, Drury Lane, etching, 1880-1881

James Abbott McNeill Whistler  (1834 - 1903)

Drury Lane

Kennedy 237, Mansfield, 234, Glasgow 243

etching, 1880-1881, on very thin antique laid paper, only state, with thread margins, a fine early proof impression of this rare work

First exhibited in 1883, and published as part of A Set of Twenty-six Etchings (the "Second Venice Set") in 1886, this etching depicts a "snapshot" view of this somewhat run-down London neighborhood, with a lone busker, right, and various passersby, in front of a wide passageway, opening onto a finely etched street scene in the far background.


James Whistler, Early Morning, lithotint, 1878

James Abbott McNeill Whistler  (1834 - 1903)

Early Morning

Way 7, Spink, Stratis and Tedeschi  9

lithotint, 1878, on medium-weight cream wove paper, 4th state (of 4), a fine impression with full margins

Whistler's third lithotint, a view of Battersea (and a companion piece to his previous Nocturne), was reworked in four states, the present atmospheric version showing his intent to depict a bright misty riverfront dawn; it was intended for publication, although the magazine closed down before the edition could be completed, and thus full sheets with letters (such as the present impression) are quite rare.


Whistler, Nude Model, Standing, lithograph, 1891

James Abbott McNeill Whistler  (1834 - 1903)

Nude Model, Standing

[Modèle Nu, Debout]

Way 154, Spink, Stratis and Tedeschi  48

lithograph, probably 1891, on thin greyish-white chine paper, only known state, with good margins, a fine working proof impression

In the early 1890s, Whistler executed a number of transfer lithographs, ostensibly in view of developing a series of colour prints with the Parisian imprimeur Belfond.  As this project was never finalized, this fine lithograph was never published, and is thus exceptionally rare.


James McNeill Whistler, The Laundress, lithograph, 1894

James Abbott McNeill Whistler  (1834 - 1903)

The Laundress

[La Blanchisseuse de la Place Dauphine]

Spink, Stratis and Tedeschi  93

transfer lithograph, 1894, on cream laid Japan paper, only known state, with full margins, an exceptional early impression, signed by the artist with his butterfly monogram in pencil, and annotated, possibly by the printer

In 1894, Whistler undertook a series of transfer lithographs, most of which were informal Parisian street scenes; these were printed by Thomas Way the same year in London.  This fine print, depicting a laundry shopfront in central Paris, is one of his very best, as he acknowledged in a letter to the printer in August 1894.


Martin Hardie, Keeper of the Print Department at the V&A in 1921, wrote:

"There are some who set him beside Rembrandt, perhaps above Rembrandt, as the greatest master of all time.
Personally, I prefer to regard them as the Jupiter and Venus, largest and brightest among the planets in the etcher's heaven."