Whistler first presented his Venetian subjects in a series of highly theatrical solo exhibitions staged in London between 1880 and 1883. The most influential was Arrangement in White and Yellow, which opened at the Fine Arts Society in the winter of 1883 and subsequently traveled to six cities in the United States, including New York and Detroit, Freer’s hometown. It featured fifty-one recent etchings displayed in an artist-designed setting that was as noteworthy and original as the works on display. The prints were enclosed in plain white frames and hung against white felt walls accented with stenciled citron-yellow designs of lines and butterflies. Yellow draperies and furnishings and choice bits of Asian pottery carried the theme into ambient space. Whistler even devised a yellow and white uniform for a roving gallery attendant, who sold the specially designed brown-covered catalogue. When the show travelled to the United States the following fall, the American press heralded it as “startlingly novel” and “the most important exhibition of [Whistler’s] work yet seen.” Freer’s future colleague Howard Mansfield was among the most enthusiastic visitors to the exhibition. By the time he met Freer three years later, Mansfield owned more than three hundred works on paper by Whistler.
In 1886 the London firm of Dowdeswell and Dowdeswell contracted with Whistler to publish A Set of Twenty-Six Etchings, a selection of Venice subjects culled from Arrangement in White and Yellow. Buoyed by the favorable reception of his work, Whistler and his publishers energetically marketed the Second Venice Set to dealers and collectors in the United States.