Nelson-Atkins Building, Gallery 214
“In an exhibition of etchings, the etchings are the last things people come to see,” joked James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), America’s premier etcher.
In truth, Whistler’s etchings were incredibly popular. His talent with a copper plate, wax ground, etching needle and acid bath made him the most influential and internationally respected modern etcher. The technical innovations he brought to the medium renewed interest in this centuries-old method of printmaking.
Whistler’s etchings exist in multiples. Each, however, is a unique work of art. This helped etching achieve recognition as an artist’s medium, elevating it beyond commercial craft. Following Whistler’s lead, other American artists experimented with etching as a serious art form. Joseph Pennell, Whistler’s biographer and an acclaimed etcher, summarized the power of the medium: “A great etching by a great etcher is a great work of art . . . on a small piece of paper, expressed with the fewest vital indispensable lines of the most personal character.”
This installation of American etchings celebrates Whistler’s achievements. It also showcases the wide-ranging possibilities of etchings during and after the American Etching Revival of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The character and quality of the fine lines that comprise this selection reward careful looking. These etchings turn Whistler’s quip on its ear - these etchings are the first things people come to see.
Images: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Black Lion Wharf, 1859. Etching on paper. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 33-284.John Taylor Arms, American, 1887-1953. Cobwebs, 1920. Etching on paper. Bequest of Frances M. Logan, 53-51/226.