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Freer Gallery celebrates the 155th anniversary of James McNeill Whistler's beginnings as an artist
James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Attendant que le linge sèche! Cologne, 1858. Pencil on off-white wove paper. Gift of Charles Lang Freer. Freer Gallery of Art.

WASHINGTON, DC.- In the summer of 1858, a young James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) left Paris and set off on a walking tour of the Rhineland, in what would be one of the most important experiences of his early career. His goals were Amsterdam—the home of Rembrandt, an early and lasting influence—and to make his mark on the artistic world. "Off the Beaten Path: Early Works by James McNeill Whistler," on view Sept. 28–Sept. 28, 2014 at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art, explores the art that Whistler created on his journey and its lasting importance on his subsequent masterworks.

Although he never made it to the Netherlands that summer, Whistler created numerous drawings, etchings and watercolors of the country life and towns he encountered along the way. These charmingly casual depictions of kitchens, innkeepers, doorways and shopkeepers reflect Whistler's enthusiasm for his craft as a young artist. He filled his notebooks with quick, impromptu sketches, some of which were later turned into watercolors and etchings in a series that Whistler referred to as his French Set.

From August to October in 1858, the 24-year-old Whistler—along with traveling companion and fellow artist Ernest Delannoy—experienced the typical hardships of an extended voyage, humorously documented through his sketches and letters home. "There was high drama on Whistler's trip through the Rhineland, largely due to his youth and inexperience as a traveler," said Maya Foo, the exhibition curator. "Even though he and Delannoy attempted to plan carefully, they ran out of money in Cologne, Germany—200 miles south of Amsterdam. While walking to the nearest American consulate in France to receive money, they joined up with a group of travelling performers, making drawings in exchange for room and board."

These early works reveal traces of Whistler's later, signature style. Recurring motifs, such as doorways and stylistic choices, including dense cross-hatching, appear in etchings created nearly 30 years after his journey. To allow visitors to follow these visual connections as Whistler's style matured, "Off the Beaten Path" will include a selection of etchings from the Venice (1879-1880) and Amsterdam (1889) sets, groups of etchings that were published and exhibited together.

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