Whistler was born an American, but spent his life a world traveler. His constant explorations had a great influence on both his paintings and his prints. While Whistler’s reputation as a painter faded following his death and the deaths of his contemporaries, curators and collectors continued to consider his Venetian etchings as among the most important achievements in the history of printmaking. In 1879, Whistler arrived to Venice in a sorry state. Bankrupt from his recent legal battle with John Ruskin, whom he had sued for slander, he accepted a commission from the Fine Arts Institute of London for a series of etchings. The expressiveness of his line and uniqueness of his printing technique make his prints stand out from other artists flocking to Italy at the time. Whistler’s concentration on tone was greatly influenced by Japanese woodcuts, from which he learned to depict transient aspects of nature, such as mist and shade.
Whistler used space and ink to create dimension and atmosphere along the water. Overseeing the inking and printing of each plate, he added surface tone by selectively wiping the copper plates. The ink creates depth and shadow, encouraging the eye to travel across the etching in a circular pattern. In addition, his choice of ink and paper were crucial in the final stages of print, making each etching unique. Whistler’s Venetian etchings received much criticism upon his return to London. Ruskin stated that his artistic prints were intended to disguise bad drawing. Today, Whistler’s etchings are collected around the world and he is acknowledged as one of the greatest printmakers of his time.
Upright Venice is among the first etchings Whistler made upon his arrival in Venice in 1879. He touched it up months later, adding the waterfront scene at the bottom and more gondolas in the distance. The lightly bitten lines, printed in brownish-black ink, are so delicate they have the effect of embroidery, echoing the fibers of the woven cream paper. Whistler also toned the sheet with a faint veil of ink to evoke the fall of light and shadow.
The vertical composition of the etching, which recalls a Japanese print or scroll, creates a gentle spatial disorientation. The waterfront in the foreground and background appear as two free-floating planes, with the empty expanse of the water between anchored by the gondolas and their shadows. Although the skyline panorama is topographically accurate—it shows the buildings around the Church of Santa Maria della Salute as seen from a window across the San Marco basin waterway—the focus is on atmosphere rather than historical monuments or picturesque landscape. (AS, "Image and After-Image," 5/22/2012)
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