Etching and drypoint
As indicated by Whistler’s poetic title, this print in black-brown ink illustrates a nighttime view of an anonymous Venetian canal. Expressive passages of densely sketched drypoint lines give form to the encroaching darkness at the upper and lower registers of the sheet. To further enhance the atmospheric effect, Whistler likely used a rag or perhaps a brush to manipulate a film of excess ink that remained on the surface of the copper plate before the printing. This technique resulted in swathes of gently textured plate tone emanating from the canal and descending from the night sky. At the center of the composition, he wiped the plate nearly clean, allowing the timeworn palaces to shine by lamplight.
Broad, flat planes of light and dark evoke the spirit of Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts, here translated by Whistler through the medium of etching into his own Western artistic tradition. Similar to the atmospheric effects achieved through plate tone, Japanese artists employed a technique called bokashi to create gradations of color, which typically appear within large expanses of sky and water.1 To execute this technique, the printmaker inked the gradation by hand onto the wood matrix, once for each print pulled from the block. (See Tsukudajima From Eitai Bridge, No. 4) Bokashi often exploited the natural pattern of the block’s wood grain to create rhythmic, textural effects in the print, similar to the artificial texture Whistler created when wiping his own copper plates.
Perhaps more than any other example from the Second Venice Set, Nocturne: Palaces conveys Whistler’s self-conscious adaptation of the Japanese aesthetic and his abandonment of pure realism. The shallow space, expansive two-dimensional planes of light and dark, and abstract attention to decorative surface effects all help move Whistler’s artistic expression toward what is today called modernism. Paradoxically, despite Whistler’s wholehearted embrace of new artistic ideas and influences, this image of Venice’s dilapidated palaces shrouded in darkness imparts through metaphor his sense of loss and nostalgia for the majestic old world of artistic tradition.
1 Yoshida, T., and R. Yuki, Japanese Print-Making: A Handbook of Traditional and Modern Techniques(Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1966), 77–78.
Amy Hughes graduated from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center with an MA in art history and an advanced certificate in art conservation. In the summer of 2014, she was a Smithsonian graduate fellow at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, where she assisted paper conservator Emily Jacobson with a technical study of Whistler’s watercolors. She currently holds an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Paper Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.