Etching and drypoint
In The Riva, No. 2, Whistler presents a sweeping view of the Riva degli Schiavoni, a waterfront avenue that stretches a half-mile westward, ending near St. Mark’s Square. As with most of Whistler’s Venice etchings, a sense of intimacy or unfamiliarity transforms an otherwise popular tourist locale. Here, Whistler focused on recording anonymous passersby and gondoliers, nondescript buildings and moored ships. Only after careful and close looking can the viewer make out the domes of St. Mark’s in the distance in the upper right corner. Looking out from the first floor of a palazzo, Whistler sketched the scene on his copper plate as he saw it, resulting in a reversed, mirror image when printed and an additional layer of disorientation.
By dint of the etching medium, Whistler had to create the image almost solely using lines. After sketching the image on a treated copper plate, acid was applied to the plate in sections. The longer that acid bit the plate, the deeper the etched lines became. Whistler achieved diversity in his linework by “stopping out” some areas of the plate during the biting process by restricting the amount of time the acid was allowed to rest on the surface. Very faint, delicate lines that were probably stopped out can be seen in the sky and in the water. Alternatively, when Whistler wanted to create a shadow or a darker area, he either drew dense groups of lines or let the acid bite the plate longer. The side of the first building on the left is an example of both. In addition to adding depth and shadow with heavy linework, Whistler often added “tone” to his plates with extra ink during the printing process. An example of toning can be seen in the sky and some of the buildings in the distance where Whistler gently wiped a layer of ink in that area, making it appear much darker in contrast to the expanse of much lighter water in the middle ground and open land in the foreground.
Whistler’s lines are often loose and fluid because the medium of etching allows the artist’s hand to move freely, as opposed to engraving, which requires applied force. Most of the meandering figures are a dense collection of organic lines, the buildings imprecise arrangements of near-straight lines. Forms become indistinct where they overlap, especially in the upper right where the masts of ships stand in front of layers of buildings. Other objects blend into one another in the image, such as the two nearly unrecognizable covered gondolas on the right. The lines defining them become jumbled and intermixed with those delineating the edge of the Riva.
Riva, which refers to the name of the avenue depicted, most often means “shore” or “bank” in Italian, with additional translations meaning “edge” or “rim.” Titling the etching The Riva, No. 2 is apt for this view of Riva degli Schiavoni, but it takes on additional significance considering the way Whistler’s linework makes the division between so many objects unclear. In this image, the riva is a literal and figurative liminal space between water and land, where ship masts are indistinguishable from church steeples and gondolas appear to be conjoined with the dock.
The intermingling of water and land, a quality quite unique to Venice, is embodied in the gondolier proudly standing in the piazza in the forefront. Firmly rooted on land, he looks out onto the water where others traverse the waves in their boats, a common form of transportation in the city. Whistler’s fluid lines in this rendering of the Riva degli Schiavoni reveal that the water Venice is built around is as important to the city as the land upon which it is built.
Christina Michelon is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, specializing in American art and material culture. Her dissertation explores the use of prints and printed objects in the nineteenth-century American home and considers a range of items, from fine art prints and scrapbooks to transfer-printed ceramics and board games. Broadly, her work looks at the print medium’s relationship to reproduction and how artists, critics, and consumers both embraced the medium’s inherent multiplicity or pushed against it by emphasizing the uniqueness of individual prints or printed objects. Her research has been supported by the Chipstone Foundation, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, and the Attingham Trust.