Whistler in Venice.

Whistler in Venice. The American artist living in England, arrived in Venice, bankrupt after a sensational libel trial against John Ruskin. Venice proved restorative and transformational; releasing a flood of creativity, that enabled him to re-establish his finances, his reputation and to a degree his personal life.

Working predominantly with etching plates and pastels on brown paper, small in size and portable; he captured both well-known landmarks and what he described as “Venice in Venice” – its more intimate scenes of back alleys, courtyards, canals, inhabited by ordinary working people. Whistler in Venice, established a new and original iconography of the city.

On his return to London, he exhibited his Venetian work and gradually resumed a leading place in the Victorian avante-garde; both at home and in Europe.



James Abbott McNeill Whistler. (b. July 11, 1834 – d. July 17, 1903)

I learned to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived…” 

He eschewed sentimentality and moral allusion in painting and was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake”. His signature for his paintings took the shape of a stylised butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail. The symbol combined both aspects of his personality: his art is marked by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative.

He found a parallel between painting and music, and entitled many of his paintings; “arrangements“, “harmonies“, and “nocturnes“, emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony.



A SENSATIONAL LIBEL TRIAL For the Victorian public, no figure was more strongly associated with Venice than John Ruskin. He had made eleven visits and published numerous books about the city. He also produced drawings that recorded details of Venetian architecture. Ruskin had completed his last major trip to Venice, returning to England in June 1877.

Soon after, he published a review of paintings in the Grosvenor Gallery on Bond Street, London. Focusing on Whistlers exhibited work; he admonished the gallery over why they had presented work of such dubious quality, made vitriolic comments about the artist himself and questioned the prices asked!  Quoting from part of his report in “Fors Clavigera”, 2nd July 1877: he….. “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”.

Left: Whistler.  Right: Ruskin.


In July, Whistler issued a claim for libel against Ruskin for damages of a £1000 and costs; they case was heard in November 1878.

The decision went in Whistler’s favour, but only a farthing in damages awarded and costs shared costs. He had already invested heavily in building a house-studio in Chelsea and in 1879 Whistler was declared bankrupt. The whole episode had severely affected his mental health.

(Note. It’s interesting that despite Ruskin’s vitriolic reaction to Whistler’s painting, their art occasionally shared surprisingly similar characteristics, including soft, dissolving atmospheres and a recurring fascination with the details of building facades.)


Whistler in Venice. THROWNE A LIFELINE

The Fine Art Society, a commercial gallery serving similar clientele to the Grosvenor; offered him a lifeline of a commission to complete a dozen etchings of Venice. The Society, advanced him £150 and expected him to return by December 1879; offering £700 for the twelve completed etching plates. The commission did not appear very generous, compared to what other artists work of that time could command.

Whistler’s commission fitted in with the gallery’s interest in etchings; in fact, it was his brother-in-law, Frances Seymour Haydn; that had fostered the interest in etching. The gallery also, had what seemed to be an exhibition policy of balancing their interest in British scenes by British artists and work brought back from more exotic locations.

Accepting, he embraced the opportunity to leave London; aiming to enhance his reputation and restore his finances.

Above: Etching, Long Venice (1880). Whistler.


Whistler in Venice. DEPARTURE TO VENICE

Whistler left for Venice in September, 1879. Although her only planned to spend a few months working in Venice, fulfilling his commission; he remained there for over a year; profoundly inspired by the city.

His route from England to Venice, recommended to travellers to Northern Italy at the time; was by train; London to Paris, change, then via the Mount Cenis tunnel to Turin, change and on to Venice. Paris to Venice by rail, took less than two days and a second class ticket was under five pounds.

He did not return to London, until 1880, some fourteen months later; the Fine Art Society having to advance him a further £150, to cover his extended stay.

It is not known the exact details where Whistler stayed, between his arrival and later move in the summer of 1880 to Casa Jankovitz, in the Castello district. His mistress Maud Franklin, joined him a month after his arrival and they were living on the Rio San Barnabas. He then moved to a small house near the “Frari” church and also took a studio in the rundown Ca’ Rezzonico; all fairly close together.

Surviving letters show that he frequently used as a postal address; the Café Florian in St Mark’s Square. They reveal little about his life and the exploration of the “hidden Venice” and his pursuit of original subject matter. They do disclose that he had been homesick and suffering from illness in the hard winter; delaying his progress.



Fired with inspiration and creativity, Whistler produced numerous drawings, some fifty etchings, over a hundred pastels and perhaps a dozen paintings. These included close-up renderings of the city’s architecture and its people, as well as more expansive views; such as depictions of the Riva degli Schiavoni; the main waterfront promenade, that extends east from the Piazza San Marco.

Whistler’s innovative views of backwater canals and picturesque architecture and his sparse renderings of the Venetian seascape; highlighted what he described as “the Venice of the Venetians”. (Whistler also liked the term “Venice in Venice”.)

The greater part of his output consisted of etchings and pastels, both opposites, as far as technique is concerned. Not only did he believe that these media, would create more personal imagery; but also that the winter was so freezingly cold, that handling watercolour outside, would have been a real problem.

Generally, he eschewed sentimentality and moral allusion in painting and was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake”. His signature for his paintings took the shape of a stylised butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail. The symbol combined both aspects of his personality: his art is marked by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative. He found a parallel between painting and music, and entitled many of his paintings; “arrangements“, “harmonies“, and “nocturnes“, emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. Essentially, Whistler created a “distance” between himself and others; in what was a competitive market for Venetian scenes.



Etching had played an important part of his work, from 1858 and is good for detail, tonal variation and light and dark contrasts. Whistler preferred to the record the scene as he saw it, directly on his etching plates; which meant that the resulting printed artwork, show the cityscape in reverse.

Left: Etching. The Riva, No. 2, from: The Second Venice Set.





Pastels, had only started being used in the late 1860’s; mostly for studies of oil paintings. Pastels are sticks of powdered pigment, bound by gum Arabic. He used this medium for pure colour, on a brown paper base with a distinct “tooth”. Pastels were used sparingly, to produce ephemeral effects, such as sunsets over the lagoon, shade in the alleys and for recreating the textures of buildings decaying.

These works are small in scale and of roughly similar size (18cm x 28 for plates/20cm x 28 cmx for paper). He was quite opinionated as to the appropriate scale for each medium.  They were easily portable, but both media needed great care of handling, as prepared etching plates were easily damaged and pastels easily rubbed. The copper plates and paper, he brought with him from England and had more of these two media sent over; during his prolonged stay. He did however, manage to source some local supplies, when necessary.

His use of pastel for a major series of work for exhibition, was a new development and a unique episode in his career.




The identification of the sites he chose, the order in which he produced them and how much do the scenes relate to today’s appearances; has only recently been fully resolved. Obviously, his grand scenes were not an issue, but tracing the location of the back-alleys, canals, squares and courtyards of the “hidden Venice” locations; would require real detective work. (Whistler liked the term “Venice in Venice”.)

Whistler did make the task difficult, for the titling of many of his works were unspecified, for example”; The Bridge” or “The Doorway”. It was his contention, that the nature of his titling raised the importance of the work, as an artist’s choice; rather than on its local identity.

Identification of sites, was further compounded by the signage, which is still a problem today. They can be written in Italian, Venetian and incorrectly; with directional signs occasionally moved to annoy the tourist! Furthermore, the actual site names are often not the same as on local maps. Occasionally, he just transcribed the names improperly.

The fact is, that his transcriptions of reality were surprisingly accurate; as revealed by recent photography of each site. But the downside is, that his etched images were reversed on printing, something very noticeable on grand views. (He did correct signage on his plates, if obvious from his view-point).

In fact, Whistler did take some flack back home, by some of his critics.

The artist Sickert, made a rather frosty quotation: “I do not want to think that I am looking towards the Via Garibaldi, when I am really looking towards the Ducal palace. It worries me and spoils my pleasure, to see the salute on the Guidecca and San Giorgio on the Zattere. Whistler is great – but so is Venice”!

Perhaps, he did not want to be criticised for copying a photograph, using a camera obscura, or even looking backwards, through a car mirror clipped to an easel!

There is no doubt his work in Venice, formed a period of intense creativity. Perhaps, he realised that driven by bankruptcy and poverty, the need for self- justification and the discovery of a rich source of beauty; he was never to return to Venice. For him, the revelations could not be repeated.



The was a long tradition of representing Venice to the British. By the 1700’s onwards, whether as part of their “Grand Tour” or not; it was not about classic antiquity, as in Rome. Rather, it was for its social scene, architecture and art and also its festivals, regattas and carnival.

Wealthy British, brought home and collected, the “Grand View” paintings of Canaletto; to the extent that were many of his paintings in British collections, with few remaining in Venice today.

View paintings remained popular, for a century after Napoleon’s conquest and the fall of the Republic; by visiting artists such as Bonnington, Wyld and E.W. Cooke; as well as the Italian painter Guglielmo Ciardi.

Turners three visits, starting in 1819, chose not to focus on representing topographical accuracy; but concentrated on representing, the drama and atmosphere of lagoon light, the idea of the city rising out of the water and its fading grandeur.  The latter idea, reflected in Byron’s work as a warning to maritime Britain; was so influential on Ruskin.

Byron had lived in Venice from 1816-19 (until his exile), incorporating the intrigues of famous families in the government into his dramas. In fact, many other artists and writers followed Byron; in representing the lives of heroic or notorious figures from Venetian history.

The notion expressed in Ruskin’s “Stones of Venice” book, was that Venice’s decline into corruption and decadence; was reflected in its architecture. When the city had been truly Christian, represented by its Byzantine and Gothic architecture; the city had flourished. It’s decline and corruption, was represented in its Renaissance and Baroque style structures.


A few years before Whistler had arrived in Venice, a new type of genre had developed and was flourishing in the city and provided a context for the development of his work. The school flourished, peaking approximately between 1875 and 1885; but did remain popular into the 20th century.

In Venice, a large community of international artists had developed scenes of working people, using as backgrounds the traditional city’s landmarks.

Their approach was foreshadowed by the watercolourist Myles Birkett Foster, under commission by Charles Steely MP. Between 1871 and 1875, he produced fifty highly finished watercolours; not only of landmarks, but of scenes of “minor Venice”, such as fruit stalls, doorways and small canals and populated by attractive, well-presented people.

Following this, a move towards a much more naturalistic approach, mainly in oils; focused on the working class and sold back home to the “middle class”; many who had probably visited Venice themselves.

However, some thought that this fashionable genre had passed its peak, with one eminent writer on Venetian contemporary art; suggesting “that painters have used up the material for good subject and there was little or nothing fresh to be chosen”!

Left: Whistler. Etching “The Beggars” (from first Venice set, 1879-1880).



However these comments was somewhat premature, as many artists continued to work in this genre; including Henry Woods, who worked in Venice, until his death in 1921. Artist Cecil Van Haanan, came to Venice in 1873 and later in 1878; achieved fame for his work “Venetian Bead Stringers”. This perpetuated the vogue in Europe and the USA, for “low-life scenes”.

Another British artist and brother-in-law of Henry Woods, was Luke Fildes; who came to Venice in 1874. He extolled the fact, that the city had such a wealth of beautiful picture opportunities, practically around every corner. His picture of “The Venetian Fruit-Seller” in 1876; won much acclaim back home.

Woods had come to Venice first in 1876, then settled there in 1878; meeting up regularly with Whistler and at the American Consul’s dinner parties. Whistler, got to know many other members of the international community of new genre artists. Despite his friendships, he did claim in a letter back home, to have “ learned to know a Venice in Venice, that others have never seem to have perceived”!  He obviously was keen to add a little distance between his style of work from other associates, to protect his claim of originality!

During this period, London was enamoured with “all things Venetian”; with exhibitions of new genre painting, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s display of Venetian sculptures and well-heads and also the long running production of “The Merchant of Venice”.



In 1880, a circle of young American artists, joined the international community of artists in Venice. They became known as the “Duveneck Boys”; after the Cincinnati artist Frank Duveneck and his students; who had visited the city two years earlier. They lodged at “Casa Jankovitz”, on the Riva San Biagio, in Castello.

James Whistler. Nocturne in blue and silver. Oil on canvas 1880.Whistler’s friendship developed with them to a point where; he moved from his lodgings near the Frari and together with an older associate Ross Turner; joined the “boy’s” at “Casa Jankovitz”. Whistlers influence on them became significant, particularly due to their interest in etchings and pastels; which gradually moved closer to resembling the style of his own work. He worked particularly closely on etchings with artist Otto Bacher.  Later in 1882, The Society of American Painters in Pastel, was founded, where Whistler’s work was influential.

Whistler was also friendly with members of the American community, including the ambassador; Consul John Harris. He died in post in 1881, aged 88. Other friends, were the painter William Graham and the Bronson and Curtis families.

Left: Whistler. Nocturne in blue and silver. Oil on canvas,1880

Other than the above, little is known about the other side of his social life. It was probably restricted by his relationship with Maud Adams and his poverty. Venice had a full calendar of entertainment; theatre, festivals and the carnival, but there are no records of his attendance.



During this period Venice was in a state of flux. In 1880, it had a population of 130,000 and was the eighth largest city in Italy. The fall of the Republic in 1797, was followed by a long period of significant modernisation and upheaval; under Napoleonic decree. The public gardens (Giardini) in Castello were built, gas lighting introduced (1843) and the rail bridge to the mainland opened (1846).

A metal Academy Bridge was constructed (1854), the Strada Nova thoroughfare between Rialto and the Railway Station formed (1871) and the Maritime Station built (1880). The wonderful Rivas, had been enlarged and extended, canal systems remodelled with some paved over and the first vaporetto line on the Grand Canal opened (1891).

What Napoleon had done to religious establishments and its art treasures, was another matter.



Whistler’s pastels, exhibited at the Fine Art Society in 1881 and framed in three shades of gold; were extensively reviewed. The etchings were shown in London in 1880, arousing considerable discussion on Whistler’s technique and subject matter.

A further selection was shown in 1883, both in London and at Wunderlich’s in New York, in an ‘Arrangement in White and Yellow’ which greatly influenced later exhibition design. The catalogue, designed by Whistler, maliciously quoted earlier press reviews.

The first Venice set of twelve etchings, was published in 1880 and the second of 26 etchings; was published by Messrs Dowdeswell, in 1886. Whistler etched, but never published several later sets, including a ‘Jubilee Set’ and an ‘East London Set’ in 1887, a ‘Renaissance Set’ in France in 1888 and an ‘Amsterdam’ set in 1889.

Below: review by Turner.


Ironically, one of his paintings in the exhibited criticised by Ruskin; went on today to be his most famous paintings. Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother”; is a revered and often parodied portrait of motherhood.

Whistler, despite his opinionated and combative character, influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time; with his theories and friendships with other leading artists and writers. He never returned to the United States.


Two highly recommended books.

“Whistler and his Circle in Venice” by Eric Denker.

“Whistlers Venice” by Alistair Grieve.




Other posts in the category of Art-Music-Literature

Turner in Venice                               Monet in Venice


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