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"An American in Venice: James McNeill Whistler and His Legacy" opens at the Arkell Museum
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Fishing Boat, 1879-1880, etching on laid paper, SUAC 998.017.

CANAJOHARIE, NY.- An American in Venice: James McNeill Whistler and His Legacy from the Syracuse University Art Collection will open at the Arkell Museum at Canajoharie, NY on July 28, 2013.

In 1879 American artist James McNeill Whistler arrived in Italy with a commission from the Fine Arts Society of London to create twelve etchings of Venice. He had already gained international recognition for his paintings Symphony No 1: The White Girl and Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.

During his fourteen months in Venice the artist produced a body of prints that are among the most important of his career. The prints from Whistler’s Venice period are distinguished by the artist’s original approach to capturing the unique qualities of the canaled city and his innovative use of the etching process. His innovations in content, style and technique established a new model for artists of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and this legacy has unmistakably imbued the art of his followers.

Whistler distinguished himself from the landscape artists who had preceded him in Venice by avoiding the city’s tourist sites. He set out to depict a “Venice of the Venetians,” seeking stimulation in the small canals and private courtyards of Venice’s lesser-known quarters. Familiar views and monuments, when they do appear in his art, are often in a hazy distance, seen from an unusual viewpoint, and are printed in reverse due to Whistler’s penchant for drawing his scenes directly on to the copper plate.

It was during his Venice period, as Whistler confessed to his follower Mortimer Menpes, that he discovered the secret of drawing: “I began first of all by seizing upon the chief point of interest. I would begin drawing that … elaborately, and then would expand from it … If by chance I did not see the whole …, I would not put it in. In this way the picture must necessarily be a perfect thing from start to finish.” The result was a central motif rendered in meticulous detail set within an environment which had been translated on to the plate with a minimum of lines. This left large, open spaces of water and sky which Whistler expertly manipulated in the printing process. Whistler selectively wiped the plate to create atmospheric effects in his surface inking. He also experimented with modern and antique papers and the different effect each created in the final printing.

Whistler’s innovations in this period established him as a master artist and had an acute effect on the art of his followers. While each artist expresses Whistler’s influence in his or her own way, the pervasiveness of Whistler’s impact is aptly described by his closest follower, Mortimer Menpes: "We followers saw things from Whistler's standpoint. If we etched a plate, we had to etch it almost exactly on Whistlerian lines. If Whistler kept his plates fair, ours were so fair that they could scarcely be seen. If Whistler adopted economy of means using the fewest possible lines, we became so nervous that we could scarcely touch the plates lest we should over elaborate."

This exhibit from the Syracuse University Art collection places eleven prints by Whistler from 1879-1880, alongside the work of his followers who were practicing in Italy in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The juxtaposition of these works allows the viewer to appreciate both Whistler’s innovations and the different ways in which his work affected that of the artists who followed him. The exhibition includes an etching of the Palazzo Dario, Venice by the modern artist John Marin along with works by Mortimer Menpes and Joseph Pennell. The exhibition also includes remarkable etchings by artists whose reputations have faded over the years. Whistler’s legacy lies in his far-reaching vision for both his medium and his subject which has made his art significant for a remarkably broad range of colleagues.

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July 28, 2013

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