The Forge

Impression: Hunterian Art Gallery
Hunterian Art Gallery
Number: 86
Date: 1861
Medium: drypoint
Size: 197 x 319 mm
Signed: 'Whistler.' at lower right
Inscribed: '1861' at lower right
Set/Publication: 'Thames Set', 1871
No. of States: 6
Known impressions: 95
Catalogues: K.68; M.68; T.57; W.63
Impressions taken from this plate  (95)


anvil, blacksmith, forge, furnace, hammer, interior, people, smithy, worker.


There have been very few variations from the original title, 'The Forge'. Examples are as follows:

'The Forge' (1863, Royal Academy). 1
'The Forge' (1863, Whistler). 2
'The Forge' (1871, Ellis & Green). 3
'Blacksmith’s Forge' (1872, Cincinnati). 4
'The Forge. Brittany' (1881, Union League Club). 5
'The Forge' (1886, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 6

Although the Union League Club was perfectly correct in placing the scene as Brittany, this was clearly not Whistler's title, and 'The Forge' has been almost universally accepted.

1: London RA 1863.

2: Whistler to W. H. Carpenter, 3 August 1863, GUW #11109.

3: A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames.

4: Cincinnati 1872 (cat. no. 972).

5: New York 1881 (cat. no. 89).

6: Wedmore 1886 A (cat. no. 63).


At the left is the glowing forge, which lights up the workshop. In front stands a blacksmith wearing a high cap and apron, his left hand on his hip, his right hand using tongs to hold a piece of metal in the fire. Behind him slouch two young assistants wearing wide-brimmed hats, the one on the right leaning on a hammer that he rests on an anvil. Behind this young man, to right, two more hammers sit on the floor, with their handles upright.
In the background at left appear the faces of a woman and perhaps a child. At the right, a small child stands by a woman wearing a high white Breton bonnet, sitting on a bench and apparently holding a stick, or perhaps a spindle. Sitting to right on the same bench, and facing the wall, is a man at work. The room is high, with timbered ceiling and walls. At centre back some tools hang on a rack; in front of them is box or chest on legs heaped up with material; and finally, at far right are two narrow-rimmed wheels.


It was drawn in Brittany. Whistler made one major painting in Brittany on this trip, The Coast of Brittany [y037].

Beatrice Whistler later recorded the drypoint, presumably with Whistler's approval, as 'Forge - (The.), Brittany'. 7 The Pennells identified it as a forge in the small town of Perros-Guirec in Brittany. 8

7: B. Whistler, list, [1891/1892], GUW #12715.

8: Pennell 1908, I, p. 94.


Forges, furnaces and smiths are a recurrent subject in Whistler's work, providing dramatic lighting and complex figure compositions. This is the first of such subjects. They include several etchings (Nocturne: Furnace [208], Murano - Glass Furnace [205], The Smithy [239], Wheelwright [240] and Flaming Forge [490]); lithographs, including The Tyresmith [c036]; 9 a few drawings, mostly studies for prints (Study for 'The Little Forge' (K.147) [m0574], Sketch of 'The Whitesmiths, Impasse des Carmélites' [m1417], Sketches of 'The Forge: Passage du Dragon' and 'The Smith: Passage du Dragon' [m1450], r.: The Forge; v.: Smiths, Ajaccio [m1679], The Flaming Forge, Ajaccio [m1678]); a watercolour and a small oil painting. 10

Lochnan suggested that it recalled the painting Les Forgerons: Souvenir de Tréport by François Bonvin (1817-1887) in the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, which Whistler could have seen at the Salon in 1857:

9: The Whitesmiths, Impasse des Carmélites [c092], The Forge, Passage du Dragon [c102], The Smith, Passage du Dragon [c103], The Master Smith [c120], The Sunny Smithy [c121], The Good Shoe [c122], Father and Son [c123], The Strong Arm [c125], The Blacksmith [c127] and The Brothers [c128].

10: r.: The Blacksmith's, Howth; v.: Horse in a stable [m1619]; The Little Forge, Lyme Regis [y442].

'Whistler treated the subject, which was a favourite with Romantics and Realists, in a new way. Gone were the straining, Vulcan-like muscles found in the work of his predecessors; Whistler's smith stands like an alchemist before the forge, observing the glowing metal, while apprentices stand by watching the transformation take place. Whistler was not concerned with a social message; he was interested in the dramatic and shifting illumination inside the dusky room, and the way in which forms were rendered ambiguous and insubstantial by the blaze. In this plate, he returned to the theme of lighting from within which he had explored in [The Music Room [39]].' 11

11: Lochnan 1984, pp. 134-135, pl. 173.