Etching and drypoint
The Bridge, Santa Marta looks like a quick and spontaneous depiction of the bustling working-class neighborhood around the Church of Santa Marta in Dorsoduro, Venice. Loose, gestural lines comprise the (often incomplete) contours of the men, women, and children who scuttle along the canal and over the bridge. The print was included in the exhibition of the etchings Whistler made in Venice, but it was replaced in the first published set “possibly because [it] was not ready for printing.”1 Indeed, several aspects of the print betray work that was done offsite. The dilapidated building on the left-hand side of the canal is disproportionately dark; the short staccato lines that constitute it are just as close together as the ones that mark the roofs and awnings of the buildings behind it, but they have been more deeply bitten or, likely, incised. Yet, other marks throughout the print have been abandoned; the “ghost” of a lantern appears on the side of the dark building, and lightly incised lines traverse the sky and water. The erratic markings in the lower left-hand corner of the print are the result of pitting on the plate, but they have been incorporated into the image by the gondolas and activity developed around them.
Whistler went to Venice in 1879 under the auspices of the Fine Art Society of London in the wake of his lawsuit against critic John Ruskin. The expense and notoriety of the trial are often cited as the impetus behind Whistler’s trip, but the actual court proceedings provide much insight into the ostensible spontaneity of the etchings he produced there. In 1877 Whistler sued Ruskin for libel after the critic singled out his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket in a diatribe against the modern trend toward self-interest over edification in visual art. Writing in Fors Clavigera, his populist publication, Ruskin exclaimed: “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”2 For Ruskin, the price of the painting was wholly incommensurate with the minimal time and effort he presumed Whistler had put into it. Ruskin located the value and “truth” of an image in its detail, which he believed illuminated the subject depicted.3 The critic put this theory into practice in The Stones of Venice, which included meticulous mezzotints of historical Venetian architectural fragments amidst the critic’s discussion of the city’s moral decline. To him, Whistler’s Nocturne was mere showmanship at best and a sham at worst.
At the trial, asked whether “the labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas!,” Whistler responded, “No; —I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.”4 The Bridge, Santa Marta and the Second Venice Set can be understood as a visual corollary to this retort and a material response to Ruskin on his own terms. The print retains evident traces of the decisions used to create it in order to demonstrate the expertise behind Whistler’s ostensibly impetuous imagery. The artist carefully selected and emphasized specific marks from the host of lines he had laid down onsite based, in part, on the idiosyncrasies of the plate, ink, paper, and confluence of them in the printing process. Whistler articulated his approach to printmaking in a short treatise included with the Second Venice Set. The Propositions prescribed eleven guidelines for selecting and deploying one’s materials to maximum effect.5Rather than a testimony to historical Venetian architecture, The Bridge, Santa Marta was a “proof” of the city’s continued vivacity, the plate Whistler had used to capture it, and the extensive knowledge of printmaking through which he negotiated his subject and materials.
1 Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, Meg Hausberg, and Joanna Meacock, eds., “The First Venice Set,” in James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, A Catalogue Raisonné (University of Glasgow, 2012), online website at http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk.
2 John Ruskin, “Letter 79” of Fors Clavigera (July 1877) in The Works of John Ruskin, vol. 29, eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1907), 146–69.
3 John Ruskin, “Finish,” Modern Painters, vol. 3 (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1885), 108–24.
4 James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 13th ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1953), 5.
5 Edward G. Kennedy, ed., The Etched Work of Whistler(New York: Kennedy Graphics and Da Capo Press, 1974), xxxii–xxxiii.
Nika Elder is the visiting assistant professor of American art at Vassar College. She specializes in North American art from the colonial period to the present and is particularly interested in intersections among painting, material culture, and visual culture. Current projects include a book on the significance of objects to the still-life paintings of late-nineteenth-century artist William Harnett and an article on an early series by contemporary artist Lorna Simpson and its relationship to the material culture and visual culture of slavery. This research has kindly been supported by grants from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, the Wyeth Foundation, and Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as various entities at Princeton University. Elder received her PhD and MA from Princeton University and her BA from Wellesley College.