James McNeill Whistler Before He Was Whistler At the Freer Gallery of Art
In the summer of 1858, a young James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) left Paris and set off on a walking tour of the Rhineland, in what would be one of the most important experiences of his early career. His goals were to visit Amsterdam—the home of Rembrandt, an early and lasting influence—and to make his mark on the artistic world. “Off the Beaten Path: Early Works by James McNeill Whistler,” on view through September 28 at the Freer Gallery of Art, explores the artwork that the young Whistler created on his journey and its lasting importance to his subsequent masterworks.
He never made it to the Netherlands that summer. However, Whistler created numerous drawings, etchings and watercolors of the country life and towns he encountered along the way. These charmingly casual depictions of kitchens, innkeepers, doorways and shopkeepers reflect Whistler’s enthusiasm for his craft as a young artist. He filled his notebooks with quick, impromptu sketches, some of which were later turned into watercolors and etchings in a series that Whistler referred to as his “French Set.”
A wonderfully infectious dimension to these drawings is their ability to bridge the expanse of time between now and the 150 years since their making. These studies and observations of architecture, atmosphere, people and places – feverish sketches that explore the streets, alcoves and dark cloistered rooms of Europe and the people who occupy them – show a wide-eyed young Whistler intoxicated by the romance of the Old World.
There is at least one major distinction among these collective drawings that separates them from other artists – their sheer virtuosity. It is not difficult to see the magnitude of the young artist’s abilities, who would later gain unprecedented i n t e r n a t i o n a l renown. There are small gestures and compositions among these studies that are remarkably powerful.
In one drawing, a man sits in a dark room with his back to the artist in front of a single window raked with light, like a study for a lost Vemeer. The exposed beams of the ceiling and the provencal farmer’s table finish the rough scene with a dreamy, bohemian dankness that predates the maudlin allure of Parisian artist Toulouse Lautrec.
These early works reveal traces of Whistler’s later, signature style. Recurring motifs, such as doorways and stylistic choices, including dense cross-hatching, appear in etchings created nearly 30 years after his journey.
To allow visitors to follow these visual connections as Whistler’s style matured, the exhibit includes a selection of etchings from the Venice (1879-1880) and Amsterdam (1889) sets, groups of etchings that were published and exhibited together.
The exhibition is also accompanied by an online gallery of the exhibition’s objects, a map showing Whistler’s journey and digital scans of archival documents from his travels. Sometimes, it takes a keen eye to recognize a blossoming artist. With Whistler, however, it is easy to see that he was destined for greatness. The Freer Gallery of Art has perhaps the most impressive collection of the artist’s mature work, and this exhibition supplements the collection, offering remarkable insight into the history, influences, development and mastery of Whistler’s craft and artistic vision.
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