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James McNeill Whistler The little lagoon

In 1891 and 1892 a group of sixty-four prints was acquired that formed the foundation of the NGV’s now-renowned holdings of European prints. The selected prints were by the old masters Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Anthony van Dyck, and nineteenth-century printmakers Charles Meryon, Max Klinger, James McNeill Whistler and Sir Francis Seymour Haden (who was also a distinguished print collector and Whistler’s brother-in-law). Whistler’s Thames set was bought from the Fine Art Society, London, and initiated his representation in the NGV Collection, which developed steadily through the twentieth century to some fifty etchings and lithographs. However, the recent donation of a luminous Venetian scene is the first such addition for almost thirty years.

In September 1879 Whistler had been commissioned by the Fine Art Society to produce a set of prints in Venice, and was expected to return to London by the end of the year with twelve plates ready for publication. Instead, and much to the society’s frustration, he remained in Venice for fourteen months, during which time he produced numerous etchings and pastel drawings. He was captivated by the city and chose to depict its picturesque passages and alleyways, crumbling buildings and endless waterways rather than the more traditional, and touristic, grand palaces and churches. The little lagoon demonstrates Whistler’s fascination with the expanse of sky and sea, and the reflections thus created. The view was drawn directly onto the copper plate, possibly from Whistler’s pensione, which looked across the Venetian lagoon to the island of San Clemente. In this tranquil scene he evokes the atmospheric effects with a reduced number of etched and drypoint lines. These are enhanced by a layer of ink (known as plate-tone) that he carefully applied to the etched plate during the printing process, which smoothly progresses from dark to light, creating a sense of perspective and beautifully conveying the stillness of the water. In late 1880 the Fine Art Society exhibited Whistler’s twelve etchings, which became known as The first Venice set. The prints were received with mixed reviews, with one critic for The Daily News writing on 2 December 1880, ‘In the Little Venice and The Little Lagoon Mr Whistler has attempted to convey impressions by lines far too few for his purpose’. Few would now say that Whistler was unsuccessful with this exquisite etching.

This particular impression was acquired by the Scottish-Australian collector Robert Winning Strang (1872–1942) in July 1912 from T. & R. Annan & Sons’ gallery in Glasgow, where impressionist art by Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Whistler and others was exhibited under arrangement with the London dealers and publishers Dowdeswell and Dowdeswell. Strang recorded its acquisition into his personal collection stockbook, and it retains its Annan gallery label. Such securely documented provenance from the early twentieth-century dealer to the donor is unusual and valuable. The print is signed both in the image with Whistler’s distinctive butterfly monogram, and again on the tab, which he left when he trimmed his prints to the platemark, rather than leaving the usual paper margin. Signed with his monogram and the abbreviation ‘imp.’, this tab is a clear indication that the etching was printed by the artist himself.

Alisa Bunbury, Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2016)