Whistler's etchings show why he was a master in art

January 15, 1995|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

"The Etchings and Drypoints of James Abbot McNeill Whistler," an exhibit featuring 40 images crafted by one of the world's most famous etchers, has just opened at the Mitchell Gallery on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis.

Born in Massachusetts in 1834, Whistler mastered the fundamentals of etching while preparing topographic charts for the U.S. government. The art form remained one of his passions after he moved to Europe.

As he moved about Amsterdam, Paris, London and Venice, he used his etching plates the way other artists employ their sketch pads.

The etchings, on loan from the Syracuse University Art Collection, depict Whistler's European encounters.

Several themes are evident as one traverses the images.

One theme that emerges is Whistler's fascination with water and the shapes and structures protruding from the shoreline -- masts, sails, wharves and the like.

In "Hurlingham" (1879), for example, the viewer's attention is grabbed by a pair of massive dark sails sticking ominously out of the water.

"Balcony Amsterdam" interplays light and dark to create a haunting impressionistic vision of both the narrow Dutch dwelling and its reflection in the canal below.

Whistler was truly a master at manipulating the flow of light into his images. "Music Room" is one example. As a husband reads in the light, his wife sews alongside him, shrouded in darkness. Emerging from the center is a third form -- a figure bathed in a muted glow that plays off the two extremes. Remarkable scratching to say the least!

Witness also "The Forge" in which the blacksmith's fire seems to give off not only light, but heat as well.

Whistler the portraitist is also in evidence as the etchings introduce us to several strong personalities lurking within the definitional lines of his figures. The piercing eyes of the serious Monsieur Drouet (1859) and the palpable sense of awareness present on the little girl's face in "Fumette" are cases in point.

"Unsafe Tenement," with its angles and lines spilling downward to suggest a flimsiness of construction, shows how adept Whistler was at focusing our attention on his many subjective nuances as a means of drawing us into his world.

The exhibition, on display through March 3, is definitely worth a visit. If you've only met Whistler through his mother, you're in for a fascinating new take on this gifted and distinctive artist.

The Mitchell Gallery is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays. An opening reception will be held from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. today.

On Jan. 22 at 2 p.m. in the Gallery, Washington printmaker Sarah Stout will discuss Whistler's techniques. On Feb. 1 at 7 p.m., Jay Fisher, curator of the Baltimore Museum of Art, will talk about Whistler.

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