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Gretchen [unknown], fl. 1830-1858

Nationality: German
Date of Birth:


'Gretchen' was the name given to the woman in Whistler's etching Gretchen at Heidelberg (K.20). Whistler wrote 'Gretchen' and (separately) 'Heidelberg' in the early 1870s on an impression of the etching in the S. P. Avery Collection in New York Public Library [K0200101]. Gretchen's identity has not been established beyond doubt.

Pennell and Lochnan thought the woman was 'Gretchen Schmidt', daughter of Whistler's landlord at Cologne during Whistler's tour of the Rhineland in 1858 (the beer mugs on the shelf might suggest a setting of a pub or inn). However, the 'Gretchen' of the etching, if she was from Heidelberg (which Whistler visited in 1858) is not necessarily 'Gretchen Schmidt' of Cologne, and unfortunately the name is too common to be traced further.

It is possible that it is not exactly a portrait but a composite figure; it is also possible that it represents a literary figure.


Stylistically the etching dates from 1858 or 1859. It is drawn far less freely than the etchings of the 'French Set'. If it is a portrait, it is a very stylised one, emphasizing the bows and stripes of the dress, and the young woman's narrow waist, carefully arranged hair and plump, pretty face. She is shown working with a needle and cottons or wool, either sewing or spinning at a little work-table by a window.

Mansfield wrote that Gretchen was holding 'a frame, apparently of needlework'. However, the object in her hand looks more like a stick, possibly a forked stick, and may be a spindle for spinning wool.

It is therefore possible that the etching shows another 'Gretchen' entirely, the Gretchen seduced by Faust, as described by Goethe. There is a passage in Faust where Gretchen is described sitting spinning by a window, waiting in vain for her lover. Gretchen ('Marguerite') starred in Gounod's opera Faust, which opened at the Théâtre-Lyrique, Paris on 19 March 1859. It may be mere coincidence, or it could be that the popular opera inspired the title and subject of Whistler's etching.


Wedmore, Sir Frederick, Whistler's Etchings: a Study and a Catalogue, London, 1886; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908; Mansfield, Howard, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etchings and Dry-Points of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Chicago, 1909, cat. no. 20; Kennedy, Edward G., The Etched Work of Whistler, New York, 1910, cat. no. 20 ; Lochnan, Katharine A., The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1984.