Etching and drypoint
Printed in dark brown ink on Asian laid paper, Whistler’s San Giorgio depicts a panoramic view of a Venetian lagoon. In the right foreground, a diagonal etched line delineates the quay from the water, in which several sailing boats are moored. The ships’ rigging and hulls cast reflections upon the water’s glassy surface—an effect Whistler conveyed using small, choppy marks rapidly incised with the etching needle. Varying his line, he also adopted a long, angular stroke to outline masts and sails that rise vertically to pierce the sky above, balancing the sweeping horizontality of the composition. Through this veil of etched lines, the city of Venice recedes on the distant shore, with the dome and campanile of San Giorgio visible on the far left. The church’s façade is slightly obstructed by a large vessel, later identified by artist Otto Bacher as a Peninsular and Oriental steamship.1 Despite the level of detail in his depiction of the harbor and city, the composition is dominated by empty space, as Whistler allowed the unmarked paper to connote open water and clear skies. When printing this impression, he left a thin film of ink on the surface of the plate, enveloping the scene in a soft tonality.
Writing in 1908, Bacher noted that this etching “was made on the Guidecca Canal, looking toward the San Giorgio, where these boats were always moored waiting for prospective purchasers.”2 Yet despite the plate’s title, San Giorgio is not the primary subject of Whistler’s composition, and his image deviates from conventional representations of this familiar Venetian landmark. Drawing directly before his subject on a prepared copper plate, Whistler—who was likely working from a first-floor window—focused his attention on the lagoon’s busy mooring.3 The void in the foreground speaks to the influence of Japanese woodblock prints, as well as to the aesthetic theories of contemporary English etcher Francis Seymour Haden. Haden encouraged artists to adopt a “labour of omission,” arguing that the etcher’s greatest and most difficult task “is to omit, to keep his subject open, to preserve breadth, to establish his planes, and to secure for them space, light, and air.”4
When an impression of this print was first exhibited at the Fine Art Society, London, in 1883, Whistler paired the image in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue with a quotation from critic Frederick Wedmore, who had previously deemed him “an artist of incomplete performance.”5 Despite the seemingly “incomplete” or sketchlike quality of this etching, Bacher recorded that Whistler had “devoted a month or six weeks to this plate.” 6 Over the course of the early 1880s, the artist continued to make compositional adjustments, burnishing out and redrawing areas of San Giorgio until he arrived at the fifth and final state of the plate seen here.7 Nevertheless, Whistler’s variety of line, economy of detail, and unique compositional perspective maintain the print’s free spontaneity, as he aimed to confound the expectations of Victorian audiences with original and fresh views of their beloved floating city.
1 Otto Bacher, With Whistler in Venice (New York: Century Co., 1908), 198.
3 Alastair Grieve, Whistler’s Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 80.
4 Francis Seymour Haden, “About Etching,” Fine Arts Quarterly Review 1 (July–October 1866), 153.
5 Mr. Whistler’s Etchings (London: Fine Art Society, 1883), cat. no. 10.
6 Bacher, With Whistler in Venice, 199.
7 Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, Meg Hausberg, and Joanna Meacock, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, A Catalogue Raisonné (University of Glasgow, 2012), online website accessed August 13, 2014 [http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk/catalogue/search/display/index.php?catno=K201&rs=&q=san+giorgio&xml=sta].
Shannon Vittoria is a PhD candidate in art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She specializes in nineteenth-century American art, with a focus on women artists, landscape painting, and printmaking. She currently holds a Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American Art to complete her doctoral thesis “Nature and Nostalgia in the Etchings of Mary Nimmo Moran (1842–1899).” In the past she held Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellowships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library and Museum, and she has worked as a curatorial research assistant at the New-York Historical Society and the Frick Collection.