En Plein Soleil

Impression: Art Institute of Chicago
Art Institute of Chicago
Number: 11
Date: 1858
Medium: etching
Size: 101 x 136 mm
Signed: 'Whistler' upside-down at upper left; 'Whistler.' at lower left
Inscribed: 'Imp. Delatre. Rue St. Jacques. 171.' at lower right (3)
Set/Publication: 'French Set', 1858
No. of States: 3
Known impressions: 44
Catalogues: K.15; M.12; T.4; W.6
Impressions taken from this plate  (44)


clothing, dress, fashion, field, landscape, model, parasol, portrait, sunlight, tree, woman seated.


The known titles appear to reflect a change in interpretation at one point, emphasizing dress and fashion, rather than the natural surroundings:

'En Plein Soleil' (1858, Whistler). 2
'Le Parasol' (1874, Flemish Gallery). 3
'En Plein Soleil' (1874, Ralph Thomas, Jr (1840-1876)). 4

In fact, all Whistler's cataloguers followed the original published title, and called it 'En Plein Soleil', which means, literally, in full sun.

The phrase implies an activity pursued in the open, on a sunny day. It could be a shared activity, such as a picnic, or an activity pursued by the artist alone, in making an etching. The title echoes the idea of working 'en plein air', as pursued by the Barbizon painters. They drew and painted directly from nature rather than completing their work in the studio.

However, with an etching, only the first stage of drawing on the copper plate could be done in the open: the etching and printing process required a return to the studio or to a printing house. Likewise, revisions could be made on site but completed in the studio. Thus although the etcher worked 'en plein air', the printer, who was not necessarily the same person, had to complete the process in the studio. At this time etchers who worked 'en plein air' like Charles Jacque (1813-1894), and Whistler, had their plates printed and published by Auguste Delâtre (1822-1907), back in Paris.

2: Douze eaux-fortes d'après Nature (the 'French Set').

3: London Pall Mall 1874 (cat. no. 44).

4: Thomas 1874 (cat. no. 4).


A young woman wearing a shawl with broad stripes is seated in a grassy meadow, holding a fringed parasol above her head. Her face, partly shadowed, is turned toward the viewer. She has dark wavy hair arranged closely round her face. In the grass, at the left, is a round box, like a hat box, tied with string or ribbon, and with a ring (possibly for holding the box) hanging down from the lid to left.
Behind her, to left, there appears to be a sloping roof or low, tent-like structure made of poles, and in the distance, a building with short, broad towers, while to her right is a solitary poplar tree on the skyline.
In early impressions a woman's head, on its side, is faintly visible at right among the grasses in the middleground and trees on the horizon, and the head of a sheep or lamb just above the horizon at right: these were probably drawn by another hand.


Whistler's title suggests that the unknown sitter was French. Despite the faint image of a lamb to right of the figure, she is definitely not a shepherdess!
Lochnan suggests she is 'a grisette enjoying a day in the sun' and refers to similar open-air subjects portrayed by Gustave Courbet, such as Les Demoiselles du village faisant l'aumone a une gardeuse de vache, dans une vallée près d'Ornans (1851-52, Metropolitan Museum of Art). She comments on the unsentimental 'objective naturalism' of Whistler's work, in contrast to the 'Realism' of Courbet. 5

5: Lochnan 1984, pp. 28-9, 31.


Whistler's title suggests that it was etched in France, and probably in the country near Paris.
The subject can be compared to several London park scenes, such as Greenwich Pensioner [40], Greenwich Park [41] and particularly Nursemaid and Child [42].


This does not look like a composed arrangement, and suggests that Whistler drew the figure out-of-doors at a specific site.

The Goncourts commented in their journal on 12 November 1861: 'The future of modern art, will it not lie in a combination of Gavarni and Rembrandt, the reality of man and his costume transfigured by the magic of shadows and light, by the sun, a poetry of colours which fall from the hand of the painter?' 6

In some ways, despite its lack of colour, the etching presages the vivid brightness of such Impressionist works as Monet's La Promenade, la femme à l'ombrelle of 1875. 7

Some years later, in 1881, Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902) made an etching with the same title as Whistler's, En plein soleil. It shows a very well-dressed, even over-dressed, middle class family on a hot summer's day: Kathleen Newton and another woman with two small girls, a boy and a black cat on a lawn, surrounded by luxuries - a sheepskin, cushions, parasols, a book and toys. The careful delineation of grass and flowers and frilly silk dresses is considerably more detailed than Whistler's. 8

6: Translated, Tinterow & Loyrette, Origins of Impressionism, exh. cat., Paris & New York, 1994-95, p. 132.

7: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1983.1.29. Daniel Wildenstein, Claude Monet. Biographie et catalogue raisonné, Paris 1974 (cat. no. 381).

8: M.J. Wentworth, M. Justin, James Tissot: Catalogue Raisonné of his Prints, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1978 (cat. no. 54); Tissot's painting of the same subject is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006.278).