Etching and drypoint
Here Whistler presents a fishing boat moored to bricole in the lagoon. In the distance, subtle outlines suggest the Santa Maria della Salute and the Punta della Dogana, whose weathervane atop a golden sphere rhymes with the mass of netting draped like a canopy above the fisherman below. The linearity of the etching method is emphasized through a pattern of horizontal and vertical elements. The boat itself appears to be sutured to the water through a series of short, vertical marks that serve both to suggest a reflection and to echo the masts with quick, wavy lines. The method’s linearity is also challenged as Whistler pushes its limitations into more painterly territory. The use of drypoint and dark brown ink softens the image, and the artist exerts masterful control of plate tone to shade the fisherman’s face and bring depth to the water.
The subject matter poses questions. Artists visiting Venice were indeed drawn to the subject of the fishing boat, but this was usually in the grander, more flamboyant manifestation of bragozzi, whose large, colorful sails provided, literally, the ideal canvas for chromatic experimentation. From Canaletto to Signac, artists used such billowing sails to render majestically the unique combination of color, water, and light that is so characteristic of the floating city. Whistler acknowledges this tradition with lightly bitten tracings that both suggest sails in the background and consequently emphasize their absence in the foreground. Avoiding the lofty grandeur of traditional renderings, he focuses instead on the banality of fishing.
Whistler pointed to the mundane quality of his subject matter when he paired the work opposite a quote by P. G. Hamerton in the Fine Art Society catalogue: “Subjects unimportant in themselves.”1 Hamerton, who had previously complained that Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 3 had far too many colors for titular accuracy, is cited satirically, but the quote does bring to bear the significance of the “unimportant.” The netting is the true visual focus here, with the boat under it merely providing the scaffolding to support its vibrant undulations. With clusters of hatching and cross-hatching to provide shade and depth, the net seems to oscillate above the fisherman, like stars in the night sky. Banal as it is, Whistler’s careful touch imbues the corded mass with just enough detail to mesmerize the viewer with its exquisite shimmer.
The netting also reminds us there is work to be done, and Whistler’s tender articulation of the fisherman’s face clearly acknowledges the tireless labor of this solo endeavor. With the sails down and net up, we might surmise it is morning, a time Whistler cherished for mentally conceiving his works, often while he was being rowed on the water. Furthermore, while the angle is in line with Whistler’s room at the Casa Jankowitz (today Pensione Bucintoro), the proximity suggests he is in fact much closer, perhaps in a boat moored one lane over. Reflecting quietly on solitude and splendor, the beautiful work becomes, essentially, about beautiful work.
1 “Fishing Boat,” Mr Whistler’s Etchings (London: Fine Art Society, 1883), cat. no. 38.
Julia Stimac is a doctoral student in art history at the University of Washington, specializing in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British art. She received her BA from Cornell University and MA from the University of Manchester, where she wrote her thesis on the fashioning of childhood in Whistler’s Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander. Her work focuses on British Aestheticism and the notion of art for art’s sake, addressing questions of gender and sexuality, transnationalism, and the relationship between image and text.