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Although best known for his paintings, the expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) is also widely acknowledged as the greatest print-maker since the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669). Many of Whistler’s most important and beautiful early prints will be on view at the Freer Gallery of Art from Aug. 28, 2004 through March 13, 2005 in an exhibition entitled “Young Whistler: Early Prints and the ‘French Set.'” In addition to 23 etchings, the exhibition will include related drawings and watercolors, as well as some of the artist’s tools, including five of his copper printing plates. Among many rarities, the exhibition will feature the only known impression of the etching “A Youth Wearing a German Cap,” and unusual early impressions of “The Unsafe Tenement.”

Whistler first learned to etch during the winter of 1854–55, when he spent several months reproducing maps for the United States Coast Survey in Washington, D.C. In July 1855, at the age of 21, he came into a small inheritance, moved to Europe to study art and settled in Paris—the center of a strong mid-19th century revival of etching as an important artistic medium.

Many of Whistler’s earliest etchings were drawn in Paris, while the rest were made at his sister’s house in London or on an extended sketching trip to Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhine. In late October 1858, Whistler published 13 of these etchings in a portfolio, which he generally referred to as the “French Set.” This publication was a major event in Whistler’s career, bringing him good sales and establishing him as one of the most promising young printmakers in Europe.

Whistler’s first prints, like “Au Sixième,” completed in 1857, represent sentimentalized scenes from the lives of art students living “la vie de bohème” (the bohemian life) but by 1857 he had turned to more realistic subjects. Most of the prints and drawings in the exhibition were completed in 1858, and were strongly influenced by the austere representations of everyday life that Whistler discovered in paintings and prints by Rembrandt and other 17-century Dutch masters.

Among the works on view at the Freer are:

  • A painting illustrating the Japanese custom of presenting a newborn infant at a Shinto Shrine
  • An almost cartoon-like painting featuring multiple images of cheerful women—all of whom resemble a popular Japanese deity of prosperity and mirth (known as Uzume, Otafuku or Okame)—engaged in dancing, food preparation and other activities
  • One of only two known impressions of “Au Sixième,” Whistler’s first etching on an original subject, showing his student apartment on the sixth floor of an unidentified building in Paris
  • Two rare watercolors and several equally rare pencil drawings that Whistler completed on an 1858 sketching trip to Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhine
  • The only known impression of one of Whistler’s earliest etchings, “A Youth Wearing a German Cap”
  • The title page of the French set, showing Whistler working on an etching while on his sketching trip to Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhine”La Mère Gèrard” and “En Plein Soleil,” realistic etchings of an aged peasant and a young bohemian woman Several rare early versions or “states” of the etching “The Unsafe Tenement,” a moody representation of a dilapidated farmhouse in Alsace-Lorraine Two very different impressions of Whistler’s first mature night landscape,”Street at Saverne”—early indications of the artist’s interest in night effects, which eventually flowered in his famous “nocturnes” of the river Thames and Venice
  • Copper etching plates for five of the thirteen prints included in the “French Set”

The Freer and Sackler galleries together form the national museum of Asian art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day. Admission is free. This summer from June 24–July 29, the galleries remain open on Thursday evenings until 8 p.m. for “Art Night on the Mall.” The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the special, exhibition-related section of the galleries’ Web site at