Etching and drypoint
Nocturne: Furnace is printed in dark brown ink on laid paper, which has been trimmed to the plate edge, save for a small tab at the lower left that bears Whistler’s butterfly signature. There is evidence of occasional plate pitting, and the white flecks in the lower quadrants suggest traces of talc likely covered the artist’s hands during the printing process. The plate appears to have been wiped around its four edges. This left paper-length striations of ink that run counter to the direction of the compositional plate tone and set off the image with a subtle framelike effect. By emphasizing the contours of the support, Whistler calls attention to the spare interplay of rectangular shapes that comprise the main scene. Simple geometric forms emerge from a seemingly haphazard coalition of short, energetic dashes. They are almost as much an arrangement of two squares as they are a doorway and window. Layered hatching and dense bands of broken lines connect—and largely define—these architectural openings. The feverish spontaneity of the slanting, scrawling marks evokes the sense of fiery eruption occurring in the central interior, as if Whistler’s etching technique gives form to the controlled conflagration of his subject. Like coiled flames licking at the air, the choppy swaths around the solitary workman’s blazing furnace radiate a warm, quivering glow. The pinkish tinge to the ivory paper delicately contributes to the incandescence. Its relative blankness here economically emphasizes spatial depth and contrasts sharply with the heavily toned mass before the full-length figure. A few uneven steps anchor the large portal but abruptly disappear into the shadowy canal. The viewer gazes across it from an unfixed vantage point.
Whistler’s trips to the island of Murano in late 1879 or early 1880 may have inspired this etching.1 Due to fears of fire in Venice, furnaces for the production of glass were restricted to Murano, long renowned for the industry. However, unlike the multifigured Murano–Glass Furnace, an example from the same period, Nocturne: Furnace effaces the legibility of location and activity. It distinctively synthesizes three of Whistler’s recurring interests: laborers, particularly at the forge; doorways as framing devices; and the illumination of night by fire. Whistler schematizes the artisan and his workspace to a generalized, even primordial, level. Downplaying identifiable setting and precise subject, the etching channels some of the elemental power found in Tintoretto’s Vulcan’s Forge (1577), a work Whistler would not have had to venture far to see.2 His apartment, after all, offered views of the Doge’s Palace, home to Tintoretto’s painting.3 Though the lone figure in Nocturne: Furnace might be understood to manipulate molten glass, his actions ultimately remain uncertain. Anonymous and summarily sketched, he wields a rod or shovel—a slender implement that recalls Whistler’s famous walking stick or a painter’s maulstick.4
Creative ambiguity likewise pervades the window, where an inquisitive face or merely some mundane object hides behind its gridded panes. Whistler’s trademark monogram draws attention to the picture plane and also doubles as a compositional element, sharing an affinity with other winged insects, such as a dragonfly skimming the surface of the Venetian lagoon. The two prongs of the gondola and its shadow reprise the symmetry of the butterfly.5 With the artist’s trademark in such close proximity, the wispy tip of the prow is oddly reminiscent of another idiosyncrasy of Whistler: his dramatic white forelock. These self-reflexive traits tie into the etching’s moody atmospherics. Nocturne: Furnace presents a meditation on Whistler’s fascination with fire. Not only were fugitive flashes in the night—particularly in the painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875), the scandalous reception of which partly motivated his flight to Venice—an aesthetic mainstay for Whistler, but the explosive possibilities of fire as a mysterious and seductive force also had metaphorical connotations for the artist. Venice was a fitting locale to indulge this interest, since, for centuries, Italians were known as leaders in pyrotechnics.6 The attraction to fire may have somewhat stemmed from practical considerations: the year 1880 was reportedly one of the most frigid Venetian winters in recent memory.7 The simultaneous allure and danger of fire inform Nocturne: Furnace.8 This print seems attuned to fire’s association with artistic invention, with revelation through fire, with sparks of imagination, as it were. In Whistler’s telling, fire was intimately related to “the power of creation.” Speaking on the mythic origins of art, Whistler describes a man “who perceived in Nature about him curious curvings, as faces are seen in the fire—this dreamer apart, was the first artist.”9 The etching thus offers a sly meta-commentary by staging this connection between fire and artistic creation.
1 Referring to Murano, Whistler writes, “I shall look for the glass things,” in a letter to Deborah Delano Haden, dated January 1, 1880. See The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 11563.
2 In a diary entry, dated January 18, 1880, Alan Summerly Cole relays news of Whistler in Venice: “Jimmy much delighted with the Tintorets.” See The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 13132. For a discussion of Whistler’s appreciation of Tintoretto, see Charles Colbert, Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 145–49.
3 For his living quarters, see Otto H. Bacher, “With Whistler In Venice, 1880–1886,” Century Magazine 73 (December 1906): 210; and Daniel E. Sutherland, Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 172.
4 For the conflation between the two accoutrements, see David Park Curry, James McNeill Whistler: Uneasy Pieces(Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2004), 50.
5 The local connection between boats—with “sails close together, and folded like the wings of a butterfly”—and the insect is made, for example, in H. F. Brown, “Venice,” English Illustrated Magazine 4 (December 1886), 142.
6 Henry James remarks on the Venetian passion for “fireworks and conversation,” in Italian Hours (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), 495. James writes, “Plenty of fireworks and plenty of talk—that’s all they ever want” (487).
7 As Daniel E. Sutherland relates, “Venetians said it was the coldest winter in thirty years,” in Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 167.
8 An inferno ravaged the Doge’s Palace in 1574, burning works by Tintoretto, among others, to ashes. Relatedly, Whistler’s portrait of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black (1871), was nearly engulfed in flames aboard a train in 1872. See Stanley Weintraub, Whistler: A Biography (New York: Da Capo Press, 2001), 149–50.
9 James McNeill Whistler, Mr. Whistler’s “Ten O’Clock”(London: Chatto and Windus, 1888), 11.
Adam M. Thomas holds a BA from New York University and an MA and PhD from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has been involved with curatorial projects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, among other institutions. He is a contributing author to Cedarhurst: The Museum and Its Collection (2008) and Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era (2009).