Place and Perceptions
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This object is a member of the following groups (click any group name to view all objects in that group):Exhibitions: Regarding America: 19th Century Art from the Permanent Collection
In May 1879 Whistler was bankrupted. In September he left for Venice with a commission from the Fine Art Society for a set of twelve etchings to be completed within three months. "Venice is superb," he wrote to his sister-in-law. "The etchings are of course very swell—but one is frozen out and so I am still behind hand with them!"<sup>1</sup> Unable to hold a copperplate for the cold, he turned to pastel. assuring the Fine Art Society: "I shall bring fifty or sixty if not more pastels totaly new and of a brilliancy very different from the customary watercolor.”<sup>2</sup> It was over a year before he returned, in November 1880, bearing, as well as some fifty etchings (K183-233), a hundred pastels.<sup>3</sup> Most of Whistler's Venice pastels were drawn on brown paper of a reddish purple shade, with a neat grain of fine parallel lines, containing small fibers and flecks of stalk which provide a "tooth" for the pastel to bite on. The color catching the surface of the ridges gains impact from the syncopated contrasting color of the paper. The earliest Venetian pastels date from the winter of 1879-80 and their very titles, such as <i>The Brown Morning—Winter</i> (private collection; M746), indicate that they are black drawings on brown paper. The gradual enlargement of Whistler's range of color may have been the result of visits to a local art shop or his own response to the colors of the city.
Campo Santa Margherita lies north of the Zattere, beyond Santa Maria del Carmine, close to the rooms that Whistler took at first in the Rio San Barnaba. It is off the tourist route, a sheltered square with a busy market and small cafes. In the campo is the Scuola dei Varotari, where the tanners' confraternity once met. At the south end of the campo, Whistler drew two pastels, <i>Archway</i> (private collection; M785) and <i>The Beggars—Winter</i> (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; M727), with its related etching <i>The Beggars</i> (KI94)—a subject reflecting his temporary poverty. Subdued in color, in black chalk barely touched up with white and orange on the brown paper, these are among his earliest Venice pastels. At the north end of the campo is the seventeenth-century Scuola di Santa Maria dei Carmini. Whistler sat by the well nearby to draw the narrow street leading past an old bell tower—the Campanile Santa Margherita—to San Rocco and the Frari. The pinholes at the corners of the pastel (M773) show that he worked on it on at least nine separate occasions. First he outlined the buildings, with their shutters and balconies, and the tower in thin black-chalk lines. Within this framework he added color in soft pastels. A dozen vivid hues sparkle on the shutters and the figures. Much of the paper remains untouched, contrasting or harmonizing with the pastels, or acting as a color in its own right.
To obtain a softer, more uniform effect Whistler blended and rubbed pastel into the paper. Shades of pink glow on the wall and shutters of the house at left, while orange and light red are repeated on the ancient bricks of the tower to right. Subtle shades of bone, beige, and gray define the weathered walls. The pale blue scumbled across the rough paper to suggest a hazy sky is picked up on walls and shutters, and strongly accents a woman's blouse and a man's trousers. The alternation of cool blue and warm orangey-pink tones creates a visual rhythm. This pastel may date from the early spring of 1880, when Whistler wrote home to his mother:
<i>After the wet, the colors upon the walls and their reflections in the canals are more gorgeous than ever and with sun shining upon the polished marble mingled with rich toned bricks and plaster, this amazing city of palaces becomes really a fairyland—created one would think especially for the painter—The people with their gay gowns and handkerchiefs—and the many tinted buildings for them to lounge against or pose before, seem to exist especially for one's pictures—and to have no other reason for being!—One could certainly spend years here and never lose the freshness that pervades the place!</i><sup>4</sup>
The composition is simple. The massive campanile, broadly drawn, is balanced by areas of finer detail on the narrow houses at left, with figures clustering around the doors. Precise lines contrast with unfocused areas, suggesting both texture and atmosphere. Whistler drew the tower confidently, with firm, short strokes, and added crisp detail. The grotesque stone head over the door, the only ornamental feature of the building, is barely indicated. He concentrated rather on conveying the basic structure of the tower, the textures of weathered brick and stone facing. By manipulating the pastel, he was able to give his lines variety in both color and texture.
Whistler's friend E. W. Godwin attended his exhibition of Venetian pastels in 1881 and wrote a review of the show.<sup>5</sup> Comparing it to the finest pastels, Godwin confessed to "a little disappointment" in <i>Campanile Santa Margherita</i>, because of its "somewhat looser handling." The critic of <i>The Queen</i> also thought it one of several pastels giving "very elementary ideas of the subjects represented.”<sup>6</sup> The critics were lacking in perception, for the deceptively simple technique suits the subject, and illustrates perfectly Whistler's claim: "I have learned to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived.”<sup>7</sup>
Margaret F. MacDonald, <i>Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue</i> (Andover, Massachusetts, 1996), pp. 492-93
1. James McNeill Whistler to Mrs. William Whistler, n.d. [1879-80], Glasgow University Library, Whistler Collection (hereafter GUL), W680.
2. Whistler to Marcus Huish, n.d. [c. 26 January 1880], GUL, LB3/8.
3. Catalogue references for Whistler's etchings (K) are to Edward G. Kennedy, <i>The Etched Work of Whistler</i> (New York: The Grolier Club, 1910; reprint, San Francisco: Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 1978); and for his pastels (M) to Margaret F. MacDonald, <i>James McNeill Whistler: Drawings, Pastels, and Watercolours: A Catalogue Raisonné</i> (New Haven, Connecticut, and London: Yale University Press, 1995).
4. Whistler to Anna McNeill Whistler, n .d. [spring 1880], GUL, W559.
5. Exhibition at the Fine Art Society, London, 1881, cat. no. 2, reviewed in E. W. Godwin, "Mr. Whistler's 'Venice Pastels,'" <i>British Architect</i>, 4 February 1881 (review kept by Whistler, GUL, PC4, pp. 37-38); Godwin's notes for the review are in a catalogue now in GUL, EC1881.1.
6. <i>The Queen</i>, 12 February 1881 (review kept by Whistler, GUL, PC15, p. 41).
7. Whistler to Huish, n.d. [c. 26 January 1880], GUL, LB3/8.
This object was included in the following exhibitions:Methods of Painting and Print Making, Addison Gallery of American Art, 1/7/1936 - 1/26/1936
Whistler, 1834-1903, William Macbeth Gallery (William Macbeth, Inc.), 4/17/1947 - 5/14/1947
James McNeill Whistler, Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 5/1/1949 - 6/13/1949
James Abbott McNeill Whistler Exhibition, Abbot Academy, 10/16/1952 - 11/21/1952
A Change of Sky, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 3/4/1960 - 4/3/1960
Mary Cassatt, James A. McNeill Whistler, John S. Sargent, Addison Gallery of American Art, 1/9/1981 - 2/8/1981
Faculty Choice Show: Paintings, Drawings, Prints, Photographs and Sculpture from, Addison Gallery of American Art, 7/5/1988 - 7/31/1988
Ideas and Notations: Masterworks on Paper from the Addison Collection, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/10/1992 - 8/2/1992
James McNeill Whistler: Retrospective Exhibition 1994-5, Tate Gallery, 10/12/1994 - 8/20/1995
Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/13/1996 - 7/31/1996
Place and Perceptions, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/16/2002 - 7/31/2002
Whistler and his Circle in Venice, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 2/8/2003 - 5/5/2003
Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Palazzo Barbaro Circle, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 4/21/2004 - 8/15/2004
Mix and Match: A Conversation between Paintings and Works on Paper, Addison Gallery of American Art, 1/23/2007 - 4/8/2007
Venice: from Canaletto and Turner to Monet, Fondation Beyeler, 9/28/2008 - 2/15/2009
James McNeill Whistler Retrospective, NHK, 9/13/2014 - 3/1/2015
Regarding America: 19th Century Art from the Permanent Collection, Addison Gallery of American Art, 4/23/2022 - 7/31/2022
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