Whistler in Venice: The Pastels

When expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) went to Venice in 1879, he only intended to stay a short time in order to complete a commission for 12 etchings. Whistler fell in love with the city—especially its backwater canals and decaying palazzos—and stayed for 14 months. There he created, among other things, a large number of pastels, some of which are housed at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art—home to the most comprehensive collection of works by Whistler in the world.

Whistler in Venice is the first of three separate Whistler exhibitions to be held at the Freer during the year 2003, which marks the centennial of the artist’s death. The show highlights 14 unusually beautiful and rare examples of these works, along with etchings and a watercolor.

Whistler preferred to work outdoors but the unusually cold winter of 1880 made holding an etching needle or painting en plein aire with oils or watercolors impractical. Pastels, however, were an ideal medium. Whistler completed 90 pastels while in Venice, describing them in a letter to his dealer as being “totally new and of a brilliancy very different from the customary watercolor.”