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collections > permanent collection > prints > james a. mcneill whistler

James A. McNeill Whistler
(American, 1834 - 1903)
Billingsgate, 1859 (printed later nineteenth century)
Etching, 5" x 6 3/4”
1989 Collectors Club purchase (89.021)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was a key figure in the etching revival of the late nineteenth century.  Although he is today best known for his paintings (including the famous canvas colloquially known as “Whistler’s Mother”), he was initially praised more for his prints.  Critics compared Whistler’s technique to that of Rembrandt, and in etchings such as Billingsgate, he captured the momentary quality, expressive handling, and rich tones for which the sixteenth-century Dutch artist had become renowned.  Despite the apparent spontaneity of the print, however, it was one of Whistler’s most complex, and the plate went through at least eight different states before the artist regarded it as complete.  The Museum’s impression represents the final state of the print, and was probably produced in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and spent part of his childhood in Russia, where his father was engaged in a civil engineering project for a railroad.  He attended school in England, and later at West Point, before returning permanently to Europe in 1855.  After a period of study in France, Whistler began submitting paintings to the Paris Salon and the London Royal Academy.  His canvases were esteemed by progressives such as Gustave Courbet, but in established art circles they met with suspicion.  Despite occasional successes, it would not be until the 1880s that Whistler achieved widespread recognition as a leading contemporary painter.  Whistler’s prints, however, were well received from the beginning, and for the rest of his career, he regularly produced etchings.  The artist died in London in 1903.