Etching and drypoint
In contrast to Whistler’s sweeping horizontal views of the skyline, punctuated by landmarks such as St. Mark’s, The Garden offers an intimate portal into the hidden world of everyday Venetians. The setting is nestled within a network of minor canals leading to the quiet spaces unseen by most visitors to the city. The figure of a boy seated on a stone step projecting over the water invites the viewer into the scene. Although the boy’s attention is fixed elsewhere, the recession of steps leads the eye through a profusion of vegetation and flowering trees to the group of four figures silhouetted in the doorway.
Through a series of framing devices typical of his work, from the vertical format of the print to the garden walls, doorway, and arches of the windows, the artist has depicted a timeless scene but not a static one. The profusion of blossoms offers the impression of a space alive with the movement of flowers in a breeze, creating a drift of petals and fragrance sweeping in the open door and out onto the canal. This effect may have arrested Whistler’s attention and caused him to linger and record the scene in a masterful series of staccato strokes, including heavy crosshatching, small circles, and tight, crabbed marks.
Of particular interest are these gestural marks Whistler used to realize the details specific to the scene, including tree bark, blossoms, window glass, and crumbling plaster walls. The incomplete tree, explored then abandoned along the wall on the left side of the composition, offers an opportunity to examine the artist’s technique of leaving untouched areas, represented as circles, to indicate places where sunlight touches the tree. It can be compared with the highly worked tree in the center of the composition, where those areas are arranged in a way that highlights the graceful twists and bends of the flowering branches. Its asymmetrical arrangement is a reminder of Whistler’s veneration of Japanese art, and its placement and distribution serve to bind the scene together and encourage the viewer to explore the scene through this glimpse of an interior world.
In 1887, the same year of this etching, a writer for The Magazine of Art, which was read in cosmopolitan centers such as London, Paris, and New York, noted “that Venice is daily losing something of her picturesqueness; that painters have used up the material for good subjects; that there is little of nothing fresh and effective to be chosen.”1 With The Garden, printed on antique laid paper with a tonal sepia wash, Whistler flouted the critic’s words, shifting a modern scene into the past, aided by the attire of the boy whose cap and britches recall those of a Renaissance page. These artistic decisions, applied to one of the few unidentified sites in his oeuvre, created a sense of time out of place, offering the viewer familiar with the public life of the city a romantic, fleeting glimpse of it through a portal to the past.
1 P. E. Pinkerton, “Cecil Van Haanen,” Magazine of Art, vol. 10 (London, Paris, New York, and Melbourne, 1887), 2.
H. Christian Carr is a professor of art history at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She served on the faculty of Sweet Briar College in Virginia for a decade, first as a DuPont scholar-in-residence and later as director of the arts management program and the Sweet Briar Museum. Her publications include “Bringing Home the World: The Cultural, Artistic, and Architectural Patronage of Indiana Fletcher Williams” in A Seamless Web: Transatlantic Art in the Nineteenth Century (2014) and “Young Audiences for Old Collections” in Rethinking Learning: Museums and Young People (Heritage 365 Press, 2009; rpt. 2014).