Whistler's "Thames Set"
The American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) moved from Paris to London in 1859 and focused his work—both painting and etching—on explicitly modern subjects, particularly the River Thames and its banks. He thus asserted his place as a realist, committed to the representation of all facets of modern life. His series of sixteen etchings later referred to as the Thames Set depicted the everyday reality of river life, exploring the buildings, boats, and people of London's docklands.
Though Whistler rendered some aspects of these scenes with considerable visual detail, he left other parts of these compositions blank or only summarily filled in, conveying the sense that these sights were viewed informally, as if in passing. To capture that immediacy, he worked directly into the waxed copperplate, without any preliminary sketches on paper. Whistler's desire to depict the effect—or impression—produced by a scene, rather than all of its precise detail, as well as his embrace of modern subject matter, foreshadowed certain aspects of the movement known as Impressionism.
The Thames Set, which comprised sixteen etchings, was greatly admired by the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire when it was exhibited in Paris in 1862. Baudelaire wrote that the images were "subtle and lively as to their improvisation and inspiration, representing the banks of the Thames; wonderful tangles of rigging, yardarms and rope, a hotchpotch of fog, furnaces and corkscrews of smoke: the profound and intricate poetry of a vast capital." But Whistler complained that "Baudelaire says many poetic things about the Thames, and nothing about the etchings themselves." Nevertheless, this series of prints established Whistler's reputation in France, England, and America.
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