Etching and drypoint
Cutting a figure in the center of James McNeill Whistler’s etching titled Turkeys is a woman approaching a well amidst a flock of birds. Turkeys is a master print: it is carefully inked in a rich brown onto a creamy antique laid paper, with extensive toning around the central figure to illuminate her presence. Deeply etched birds appear everywhere—in the foreground, around the well and the well curb, and beyond—while a combination of delicate lines and scratches across the composition mark out forms: cats, a canoodling couple, a standing woman laden with an infant. A seated elderly woman and even an arbor are picked out. An economy of irregular lines—in the form of cross-hatched window panes, squiggles suggesting foliage, diagonals serving as wooden railings, waves forming feathers—makes the courtyard setting vibrate with detail. The emphatic use of drypoint gestures to the deep space of the overhang above the young man’s head and marks the butterfly on a tab doubling as Whistler’s signature on the lower edge of the print. Fine vertical and diagonal scratches on the plate, made by Whistler, resisted burnishing and thus dot the upper half of the impression.
While many of the other prints in the set are committed to offering the atmospheric experience of lagoons and canals of a now-familiar Venice, Turkeys is a genre scene featuring a side of Venice that was rarely depicted by artists.1 Art historian Margaret F. MacDonald notes that the print depicts the Corte Delfina, a small courtyard off the Rio de la Tana, north of the Via Garibaldi in Venice, which “was quite near where Whistler was staying at the Casa Jankowitz on the Riva.”2 While the Second Venice Set has been exhibited to highlight changes in Whistler’s style, it is important to note that Turkeys has more in common thematically with Whistler’s Thames scenes of everyday life produced more than a decade earlier. Prints from the Thames Set often rely on a single central figure to orient the viewer to the scene. In execution, however, Turkeys, is radically different from those Thames prints, which are rendered with painstaking detail and operate narratively and poetically. In contrast, much of Turkeys is delineated using a series of scratches that suggest marks made by a turkey. These scratches are so visually similar to handwriting that they approach a sort of language. Only after some concentrated looking does one ascertain that the linear form seeming to spring from the central figure to the boy lounging under the overhang is not an arrow but is instead a graphically rendered anchor. An anchor is, of course, a metal object that connects a vessel to the bed of a body of water. With this object, one contemporary critic noted, Whistler “shows us that these people are of the sea-faring kind.”3 The now-familiar Venice of lagoons and vessels illustrated in other corners of Whistler’s Venice Set thus receives a nod.
The presence of so many other meaningful elements begs the question, “What of the title?” A quick dip into the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that “to talk turkey,” as Whistler has done through the title and the scratch marks that comprise much of the composition, is “to talk in high-flown language.”4 With that definition, the connection between the young man and woman are laid bare. Talking turkey, the habit of pleasant chat between members of the opposite sex, was popularized in the following line drawn from William McClintock’s 1841 novel John Beedle’s Sleigh Ride, Courtship and Marriage: “I was plaguy apt to talk turkey always when I got sociable….” The young man is drawn from his workshop to bask in the attentions of the young woman who tends her charges. Similarly, turkeys use language to banter during their mating rituals: turkeys strut, their feathers puffed out and their tail feathers fanned like a peacock, for attention when they gobble, flirt, and engage in romantic play. Whistler’s casual rendering of a courtyard courtship through Turkeys thus demonstrates both his intimate acquaintance with a city whose grander sights had long drawn tourists and his ability to capture a moment as old as time itself.
1 Alastair Grieve, Whistler’s Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
2 Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, and Joanna Meacock, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a catalogue raisonné (University of Glasgow, 2012), cat. no. 236 i/ii [http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk]. Margaret F. MacDonald, Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice(Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2001), 73, 120–22, repr. pl. 123.
3 “The Whistler Exhibition,” New York Mail and Express (October 24, 1883) (GUL PC3/61, PC4/12).
Dana E. Byrd is an assistant professor in art history at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. A scholar of American art and material culture, her research engages with questions of place and the role of objects in everyday life. She is at work on a book manuscript that uses art to examine the experience of the plantation during the Civil War through the end of Reconstruction. Simultaneously, she is developing a long-term research project that examines nineteenth-century representations of sociable interiors in three cosmopolitan cities: New Orleans, Paris, and London.