Etching and drypoint
The Balcony, Whistler’s etching of an aging palazzo on the banks of a canal, with a gondola and gondolier at its entrance, presents unmistakable signifiers of late nineteenth-century Venice. Scholars have identified the site, but this information is peripheral to the viewer’s experience of the materiality of the print.1 The composition is comprised of three pictorial elements. First is a façade of a three-story Renaissance palazzo cropped at its third level, barring any view of Venetian sunlight, sky, or vista beyond, save for the outline of an adjacent building. A prominent balcony under mullioned windows adds horizontality as well as spatial depth to the scene. Second, at the palazzo’s edge is a canal whose wavering reflections of the stairs leading to the palazzo and the landing posts before it dissolve into shadow. An unusual mark of concentric circular shapes and perforations is visible in the canal—it is difficult to decipher in reproduction—and was possibly created by the stamp of a roulette tool. Third are sketchlike human forms at the balcony and in the windows, including one person shaking out what may be a rug or garment. These figures have literally been etched in and out of their locales in the course of Whistler’s continual reworking of the various states of the plate, leaving traces of empty spaces above the balcony.2 Most striking is a mysterious lone female emerging from a darkened background in the palazzo’s doorway, a motif Whistler frequently uses elsewhere, although here she is somewhat marginalized by the rest of the composition.
The long etched lines and abundance of short, staccato abbreviated lines delineate the solidity and detail of the stone masonry and other materials of the façade. While quick, almost calligraphic lines dominate much of the composition, they are more tightly configured in the depiction of the balcony and of the gondola itself than at the edges of the print. This reinforces the view that Whistler customarily worked from the center of his composition and moved outward.3 Whistler’s decision not to fill the entire surface with the same degree of density is indicative of his avant-garde sensibility.
Whistler’s work in Venice, fueled by the need to recoup his finances after the debacle of the Ruskin trial, depended not only on the popularity of Venice as a subject but also on the growing market generated by the “Etching Revival.”4 In his determined effort to capitalize on this market, Whistler utilized the medium of etching, as in The Balcony, to create works that would be dominated by his complete control of the copper plate and its impressions. As such, one may consider the presence of perforations and concentric forms in this etching’s lower register, possibly from a roulette tool, as a novel or experimental indentation. The deliberate expression of the artist’s hand would signal to a future owner of The Balcony the acquisition of an original work of art.
1 The site has been identified as No. 66, Sante Croce, according to Alastair Grieve, Whistler’s Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 43.
2 For analysis of the various states of The Balcony, see Whistler etching catalogue raisonné [http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk/catalogue/plate/display/index.php?catno=K207&xml=sta]. See also Edward G. Kennedy, The Etched Work of Whistler (New York: Grolier Club, 1910), 89–91, no. 207.
3 See Katherine A. Lochnan, The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), 189.
4 For a consideration of the growing view of etching as an art form rather than as the product of a craft, see Emma Chambers, An Indolent and Blundering Art?: The Etching Revival and the Redefinition of Etching in England, 1838–1892 (Aldershot; Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999).
Margaret R. Laster specializes in nineteenth-century American art, architecture, and material culture, and in transatlantic collecting and patronage histories. A contributor to the Smithsonian’s Provenance Research Initiative, she has held museum research positions in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Washington. With degrees from Williams College, the University of Chicago, and a doctorate from the CUNY Graduate Center, she has received fellowships from the Frick Collection, the Huntington Library, the William Morris Society, and the Smithsonian. As the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies inaugural fellow, she helped create the Freer’s 2011 symposium “Palaces of Art: Whistler and the Art Worlds of Aestheticism.”