St. John's exhibit has some of Whistler's greatest etchings

January 23, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Lovers of etchings -- and we know who we are -- have seldom had a season like this one, thanks to the Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College in Annapolis.

As etchers go, you can't get any better than Rembrandt and Whistler. In the fall, the Mitchell was the site of a show of 51 Rembrandt etchings, including some of his greatest and most famous images.

Now at the same gallery there's a show of 40 etchings by Whistler, including some of his greatest and most famous images. It comes from the Syracuse University Art Collection, and it offers a rare opportunity to study Whistler's art.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in America in 1834, educated in France and settled in England by 1859. The show includes works from his four best-known series of etchings, beginning with the French set or "Twelve Etchings from Nature" of the 1850s.

Especially notable, as the essay that accompanies the show points out, is "The Unsafe Tenement," with its stark lights and deep shadows creating a sense of menace.

Shortly after arriving in England, Whistler produced "Sixteen Etchings," known as the Thames set, exploring waterfront subjects in a detailed realist style. "Black Lion Wharf" is not alone in this series in setting up a contrast between the focus on a single figure in the foreground and a background over which the eye travels from detail to detail without coming to rest at a single point.

In the late 1870s, bankrupt after a lawsuit, Whistler went to

Venice and turned out two sets of etchings that provide a sharp contrast to the Thames set. Here, in works such as "Nocturne: Palaces" and "Garden," all is atmosphere and fleeting impression. People and even buildings seem to be on the point of dissolving into the air, the blinding sunlight or the dark of night.

The exhibit also includes transitional works showing aspects of Whistler's development between the Thames and Venetian sets, and very late works such as "Sleeping Child, Ajaccio" (1901) in which some of the marks appear to be included as pure marks, rather than as depiction of objects.

No didactic materials beyond identifying labels were sent with -- the show from Syracuse, which marks quite a contrast with the Rembrandt show, from the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and accompanied by excellent texts and explanatory labels. But the Mitchell gallery has printed a brochure with an essay that sheds light on the subject.

St. John's show

L What: "The Etchings and Drypoints of James McNeill Whistler"

Where: Mitchell Art Gallery, St. John's College, Annapolis

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays, through March 3

Call: (410) 626-2556

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