This display at the Tel Aviv Museum
features a selection of the etchings created by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834, Lowell, Massachusetts − 1903, London) − an American-born painter and etcher who worked in England and France in the mid-19th century. Whistler set off for Europe in 1855, when he was 21 years old − arriving in London and then moving on to Paris, where he enrolled at the École Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin. The following year, he studied at the atelier of the Swiss artist Charles Gleyre. Like his fellow artists Honoré Daumier, Jean-François Millet, and Édouard Manet, and like French Realists such as Gustave Courbet (whose art influenced him at the onset of his career), Whistler exploited the unique qualities of the etching medium to describe modern life from a socially and politically critical perspective.
The etchings included in this display feature modern cityscapes transformed by industrialization and related economic and social changes, as well as everyday scenes from the lives of the lower classes in Paris and London. These prints include nostalgic and poetic images of city life, views of the Thames enveloped in fog, and views of dilapidated rural houses of the kind included in the two series "Twelve Prints from Nature" ("The French Set") and "Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects" ("The Thames Set").
"The French Set" was published in Paris in November 1858, and captured scenes from the trip taken by Whistler and his friend Ernst Delannoy to Alsace-Lorraine and to the Rhine region in October 1858.
During his years in Paris, Whistler returned several times to England (he settled there permanently in 1860), where he became deeply interested in the medium of etching. Upon his return to Paris, he began to create etchings himself. In 1857, he visited an exhibition in Manchester that featured works by Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt, and other 17th-century artists. Following this encounter with Rembrandt, Whistler planned a trip to Amsterdam to see the works of this Dutch master; a lack of funds, however, led him to change his plans and to travel instead to northern France, Luxembourg, and the Rhine region. In the course of this journey, he created drawings and even some etchings of simple rural views that appear in this set alongside his images of everyday life in Paris; like Honoré Daumier's caricatures, these works were created in reaction to the social reality of his time.
Following his return to Paris, he created several trial prints in the workshop of the city's leading printmaker, August Delâtre, and then chose the twelve etchings and title page) another etching created in the course of this journey (that were published as "Twelve Etchings from Nature." Although these etchings were not all concerned with French themes, Whistler chose to call them "The French Set." His thematic and stylistic choices reflect his affiliation with the modern, Realist sensibility prevalent at that time among many French artists, as well as the influence of 17th-century Spanish and Dutch art.
The etchings in this set are the first to reveal Whistler's artistic maturity and boldness; they feature domestic and genre scenes, portraits of children and friends, various figures seen in alleyways, silhouettes, anonymous interiors, and rural scenes.
Among the portraits of personal acquaintances included in this display are portraits of Annie (Ann Harriet Haden, the oldest daughter of Whistler's half-sister and of the etcher, collector, and physicist Sir Francis Seymour Haden) and Fumette (Whistler's term of endearment for his companion and model during his student years in Paris). Among the other figures represented by the artist are The Old Rag-Woman, The Mustard Seller, the eccentric flower seller La Mère Gérard (a bourgeois woman who had lost her money and made a living selling flowers at the entrance to a popular dance hall), and the figures depicted in the etchings In Full Sun, The Tinker, and other images of workmen, and especially of working-class women. These characters represented various aspects of urban life − a subject popular among French Realist artists, who portrayed such types in a direct, un-idealized manner. Several of these prints) including La Mère Gérard, In Full Sun, The Tinker and Fumette (were created in Paris in the summer of 1858, before Whistler set off on his journey. These etchings are characterized by delicate lines and atmospheric effects, which were enhanced by the use of brown-toned ink.
As Whistler's style continued to evolve over time, the Realist, earthy quality of his images gave way to a more ethereal and spiritual character. The print In Full Sun, for instance, is suffused by an airy, sunlit quality that is related to the plein-air tradition embraced by numerous French painters during those years.
The prints Street at Saverne and The Unsafe Tenement were both created in Alsace. The Unsafe Tenement bespeaks the influence of the Barbizon-School artist Charles Jacques, who frequently depicted dilapidated farms and was influenced by 17th-century Dutch art. Whistler traveled to Saverne to visit a friend who had studied with him in Paris, and created the plate for this etching in the course of his visit. This print is considered to be Whistler's earliest surviving Nocturne (a subject that would later be developed in both his paintings and prints, and which was inspired by musical harmonies and Japanese prints). The drypoint The Mustard Seller depicts a young woman standing in the doorway of a mustard store, while another woman is preparing an order on the interior. In the course of his journey, Whistler created several preparatory drawings for this print and for The Kitchen (one of the most ambitious images in this set, due to the use of dramatic chiaroscuro). When he returned to Paris, he used these drawings as the basis for the etchings
The Old Rag-Woman, the first of Whistler's female profiles, inspired numerous artists, and was one of Whistler's own favorites. This etching is concerned with a subject that was also of interest to the Barbizon artists. Although the plate was burned only after Whistler returned to Paris, it was probably created directly from observation.
The title page for this set, which represents an artist drawing outdoors, may be based on a drawing of Ernst Delaunay, Whistler's travelling companion, sketching in the streets of Cologne. At the same time, this figure appears to be wearing Whistler's clothes and hat, and bears a close resemblance to Whistler himself.
In early November 1858, "The French Set" (the title page and 12 etchings) was first printed in Paris in an edition of 20. The inscription on the title page of this set reads: "Twelve Etchings from Nature (The French Set), by James Whistler, printed by Delâtre, 17 Rue Saint-Jacques, Paris, November 1858." The bottom of the page bears the dedication: "To my old friend, Seymour Haden."