James Abbott McNeill Whistler flunked out of West Point due to bad chemistry, hated his government job in Washington and, in a mid-life crisis, tangled with an art critic and ended up broke. But at his death the painter's reputation and finances were intact, and his mother remains an icon of American art.
Whistler as etcher is an equally significant if less colorful character, having evolved what some consider the most original etching style since Rembrandt. A selection of 30 prints from the Corcoran Gallery's permanent collection -- "Whistler's World: The Master's Etchings" -- is on view through September 26.
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834, Whistler spent only 16 of his 69 years in this country. He first learned his art in Washington, drawing maps for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. When civil service proved to be a drag, he resolved to become a serious artist and left the federal payroll for Paris.
There he intended to study painting but veered off into etching, publishing a dozen scenes known as "The French Set," seven of which are included in the Corcoran's exhibit. "The Unsafe Tenement" is as close as he came to political commentary; detailed renderings of the faces of elderly and child subjects were more his style.
In 1863 he settled in London, focusing on everyday life along the river in etchings which came to be called "The Thames Set," 23 of which are on view. Faces of longshoremen, the Billingsgate fish market, boats and London Bridge were his subjects. (He never reversed the images so that they'd come out right when the print was pulled; so, for example, St. Paul's Cathedral ends up on the wrong side of the river.) Portrait painting was Whistler's chief concern through the 1860s and '70s until 1878, when he filed a libel suit against art critic John Ruskin and lost his shirt by way of the courts. Reviewing "Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket," a modernist painting of a fireworks display, Ruskin wrote that Whistler was a "cockscomb" with some nerve, "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." A famous pan. It took Whistler three years of ruinous legal expenses to win the sum of one farthing. The Fine Art Society of London came to the artist's rescue, commissioning him to go to Venice to do a series of etchings. "The Venice Set" used new techniques to achieve a feathery, almost impressionist tone. "The Piazzetta" is among four examples on view with the softer, delicate strokes that later were picked up by a circle of American and British followers. Lovers of Whistler's paintings may not be moved in the same way by these small, sober etchings. The man's life story (chronicled by artist-biographer Joseph Pennell) is more dramatic than the prints he pulled; his accomplishments in portraiture are flashier than his etched needlework. But this is a quiet show that requires patient viewing. "WHISTLER'S WORLD: THE MASTER'S ETCHINGS" -- At the Corcoran, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW, through September 26.