Published: January 21, 2003
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Commemorating the centennial of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s death, “Whistler and His Circle in Venice,” from February 8 to May 5 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, explores the artist’s struggle to find the “Venice of Venetians,” and traces Whistler’s considerable influence on his contemporaries and followers.
Starting in September 1879, Whistler spent 15 months living and working in Venice, Italy, seeking to depict more than the traditional popular tourist views of the city. Whistler’s pastels, etchings, drawings and oil paintings, as well as those of his followers, reveal the artists’ desire to delve deeper into Venetian culture.
“Whistler’s Venetian work is remarkable not only for its extraordinary aesthetic appeal but also for its impact on generations of later artists who represented Venice,” noted Eric Denker, curator of prints and drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. “For instance, Whistler was the first artist to paint monumental non-tourist sites in Venice; John Singer Sargent also adopted that practice. Whistler also chose not to reverse his prints because he wished them to be viewed as works of art, not tourist souvenirs. Likewise, Joseph Pennell, John Marin, Ernest Roth and others did not reverse their images.”
“Whistler and His Circle in Venice” features more than 120 works, including a substantial selection of etchings, pastels, watercolors and a small collection of oil paintings. The second part of the exhibition highlights the work of Whistler’s circle: John Singer Sargent, Otto Bacher, Mortimer Menpes, Robert Blum, Frank Duveneck, Joseph Pennell, John Marin and Alfred Stieglitz.
While in Venice, Whistler worked in a variety of media, including etching, oil and pastel. Whistler’s etchings, while mirror images, are simple and direct, thereby eliminating all extraneous details. For example, Whistler’s print, “The Piazzetta,” relies on broad outlines to define the Venetian scene, without including unnecessary details, such as the upper part of the column of St Mark.
When working in pastel, Whistler typically sketched the rough outlines of the scene in charcoal on light brown paper. Whistler then returned to his studio to make a more detailed image and to add mosaiclike pastel.
“Whistler worked incredibly quickly, creating wonderful jewels of color in a remarkably short amount of time,” commented Denker. “Whistler’s use of bright colors echoes the Venetian tradition of color-encrusted mosaic surfaces.”
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was born in Lowell, Mass., but lived in Russia during his youth and in Europe for all of his adult life. Whistler often courted controversy, most notably with his early patron Frederick Leyland, as well as with John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde. The work Whistler produced while in Venice rehabilitated his reputation and career, and reestablished Whistler as a leading artist. The 15 months he spent in Venice marked the first time Whistler developed a circle of followers.
The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, will present a concurrent installation of Whistler’s pastels from the museum’s permanent collection.
Following the presentation at the Corcoran, “Whistler and His Circle in Venice” begins a national tour.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is at New York Avenue and 17th Street, NW. For information, 202-639-1700 or www.Corcoran.org.
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