When Freer purchased the Second Venice Set from the art dealer M. Knoedler and Company in 1887, the prints were among the most up-to-date examples of Whistler’s work on the market. Venice was a timeworn artistic subject, but Whistler’s approach was fresh and original. Claiming to have “learned to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived,” Whistler tended to avoid notable landmarks and familiar topographical views. Instead, he sought out back canals, obscure buildings, and shadowy doorways, often depicting them in the shimmering light of early dawn or the gathering darkness of night.
Whistler’s first and only visit to Venice commenced in the fall of 1879, when his professional and personal fortunes were at their lowest ebb. Hoping to recover from financial troubles—the result of a falling-out with his patron Frederick Leyland over the Peacock Room and a disastrous lawsuit against the art critic John Ruskin—Whistler accepted a commission from a London art gallery to produce twelve etchings of Venetian scenes over the course of three months. Captivated by the city’s loveliness and obsessed with the technical details of his craft, Whistler remained in Venice for more than a year. He returned to London with a hundred pastels and a handful of oil paintings. The fifty etchings he produced, Whistler declared, “are far more beautiful in subject and more important in interest than any” he had yet created.