The Little Venice

Impression: Art Institute of Chicago
Art Institute of Chicago
Number: 238
Date: 1880
Medium: etching
Size: 185 x 264 mm
Signed: butterfly at lower left
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: 'First Venice Set', 1880
No. of States: 2
Known impressions: 54
Catalogues: K.183; M.180; W.149
Impressions taken from this plate  (54)


It was published as No. 1, The Little Venice, in Venice, a Series of Twelve Etchings ('First Venice Set') by the Fine Art Society, London, in 1880.


At the time of publication, The Little Venice was exhibited with the 'First Venice Set' at the Fine Art Society, London in 1880. 19 The Times published an extensive review of the show, picking out The Little Venice for praise:

19: London FAS 1880 (cat. no. 1).

'The plates may perhaps be divided into two classes - those in which the main effect is dependent upon the pure etched line, and those where it is chiefly produced by the somewhat less legitimate and certain method of printing from an imperfectly cleaned plate, the former of those approximating to the appearance of a wood-cut, the latter to that of a mezzotint. As an example of the former, the one entitled "The Little Venice" leaves scarcely anything to be desired, its very simplicity being delightful. Something of the large grasp with which Turner used to treat the slow flow of a still current is visible in the expanses of placid water which Mr Whistler shows us in this etching.' 20

20: 'Mr Whistler's Etchings of Venice', Times, London, 25 December 1880, p. 4.

The St James' Gazette also praised it highly:
'The best examples of his earlier work, such as "Black Lion Wharf", "The Thames near Wapping", ... each contained as striking an impression of a momentary effect or of a prevailing genius loci as we see in the best of these plates, such as "The Riva", "The Doorway," "The Little Venice," or "The Little Lagoon", besides which, they afforded us an opportunity of enjoyment in the technique of the artist, of which we are now deprived. Perhaps the best of the series are the three called respectively "The Riva," "The Doorway," and "The Little Venice," ... "The Little Venice" is one of the slightest of the series; but in its expression of that solitude and isolation which is caused by a first view of the Queen of the Adriatic, "sitting in her islands, beyond three miles of sea", it is as powerful as any of the twelve.' 21

21: 'Mr. Whistler's Venice', St James' Gazette, 9 December 1880 (GUL PC4/16).

Thus The Little Venice was used in the arguments over 'artistic' printing, as an example of 'pure etching' although in fact the artist usually printed it with a subtle skim of plate tone to suggest the water, and it was not so reliant on pure etched line as the reviewer suggested. Another critic commented '"The Little Venice" is a very simple plate, a horizon line of shipping and distant buildings with no sky to speak of, and apparently done at one biting of the plate, with no dry point on it.' 22 However, F.G. Stephens, in The Athenaeum, did notice the use of plate tone, which he described as 'painterly finish':

22: 'Mr. Whistler's etchings ...', British Architect, 10 December 1880.

'In the same room may be seen a collection of etchings of Venetian scenes, not a few of which are marked by delicacy painterly finish, and an exquisite sense of the subtle gradation of light and the comparative relationship of the parts ... The best represents Venice in the mid- distance on a very high horizon, seen beyond a calm sea, where only the longest and most shallow ripples move, and the distances are , with some skill , marked with posts. 23

23: 'Mr. Whistler's Pastels', The Athenaeum, 5 February 1881, p. 206.

On the other hand, the Daily News dismissed it with the comment, 'In the "Little Venice" and "The Little Lagoon" Mr. Whistler has attempted to to convey impressions by lines far too few for his purpose.' 24

The Little Venice was shown again at the Fine Art Society in 1883, when Whistler embellished his catalogue entry on The Little Venice with excerpts from four earlier reviews including a comment from the St James' Gazette of 9 December 1880 that 'The Little Venice is one of the slightest of the series' and the sentence from the Daily News cited above. He concluded with a statement by Henry Quilter (1851-1907), 'It is not the Venice of a maiden's fancies.' 25 By this selection Whistler was pointing out that The Little Venice actually conveyed both colour and detail effectively, and the panorama exemplified the traveller's image of Venice.

24: 'Mr. Whistler's Venice Etchings', Daily News (London), 2 December 1880.

25: London FAS 1883 (cat. no. 20); see MacDonald 2001, p. 98.

Whistler's selection was not entirely fair, since reviews often contained both praise and criticism. The St James' Gazette, quoted above, had praised his economical technique, which 'in its simplicity and contempt for elaboration, reminds us more of the Spaniard Goya than any other acquafortiste'. 26 The comparison with the work of Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) was unusual, and justified mainly by Whistler's combination of line and areas of tone.

26: 9 December 1880, op. cit.

A version of the Fine Art Society exhibition was shown by the print dealers H. Wunderlich & Co. in New York in 1883, and the 'First Venice Set' was exhibited again at the F.A.S. in 1892. Individual impressions of The Little Venice were included in the exhibitions of art clubs and societies, such as in the Union League Club in New York in 1881, lent by Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904). 27 It may also have been exhibited in the New York Etching Club in 1882, possibly lent by Avery, as 'The Lido, Venice.'

27: New York 1881 (cat. nos. 156-67).

In 1887 a selection of etchings hung at the Hogarth Club in Albermarle Street, London, and was described as:
'a not unimportant portion of the most memorable etched work executed in our time ... [including] the "Little Venice", published by the Fine Art Society. The impression, as the connoisseur may like to recognise, is of extraordinary quality. Mr Whistler is his own printer. By this means he secures that nothing mechanical enters into his etched work; the hand executes with promptitude and exactness the intention of the mind. "Little Venice" is perhaps peculiarly memorable for skill in selection, economy of means, delicacy of touch'. 28

28: 'Hogarth Club', The Standard, London, 3 March 1887 (GUL PC7/18-19).

Print dealer's shows - particularly H. Wunderlich & Co. in New York in 1898 and 1903 and Obach & Co. in London in 1903 - included impressions. Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) bought a first state from Wunderlich's in 1898 (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830105). 29

The Little Venice was popular - as were other Venetian prints - in public and international exhibitions, and was shown, for instance, in Philadelphia (1881), Berlin (1881 and 1900), Paris (1889) and Chicago (1893). Bryan Lathrop (1844-1916) lent to an exhibition organised by the Caxton Club in Chicago in 1900 (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830102) and James Cox-Cox (ca 1849- d.1901) to the International in Glasgow in 1901. 30 Another impression went to an art and industrial exhibition at Wolverhampton in 1902. 31

29: New York 1898 (cat. no. 128). See REFERENCES : EXHIBITIONS.

30: Chicago 1900 (cat. no. 130); Glasgow 1901 (cat. no. 243)

31: Wolverhampton 1902 (cat. no. 132).

After Whistler's death, impressions were shown at the principal Memorial Exhibitions including the Grolier Club, New York, and the Copley Society, Boston, in 1904 and another at the Whistler Memorial Exhibition in London in 1905, lent from the Royal Collection. 32

32: New York 1904a (cat. no. 150); Boston 1904 (cat. no. 116); London Mem. 1905 (cat. no. 149).


Most impressions were printed for and sold by the Fine Art Society. Since there were few states, there were few working proofs to be sold separately by Whistler.
A carefully wiped and very atmospheric impression of The Little Venice, printed and signed probably in 1880 and marked by Whistler with a coded number 'o', which may have been a mark to indicate that it was a fine impression or that it was specially selected, was acquired by Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830120).
Alphonse Wyatt Thibaudeau (ca 1840- d.1892) sold one of the earliest 'First Venice Sets', including this etching, in 1882 to the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830119). A later set was acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830115).
Whistler was quite prepared to write on the paper if it helped to sell an impression. For instance, he wrote 'Selected proof -' on the verso of a print bought by the Hamburger Kunsthalle (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830137) and on an impression bought by Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) in 1893 (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830104), on one owned by Henry Graves (1806-1892) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830131) and on another that was eventually bought by Lessing Julius Rosenwald (1891-1971) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830133).
One of these was probably that sold by Whistler to Wunderlich's for £6.6.0 in 1893. 33 By then the F.A.S. was supposed to ask £10.10.0 for impressions, but whether they did so is not known. 34

Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) was singularly obsessed with this etching. He bought two impressions in 1892, one of which was a first state with a coded note 'P.v.' by Whistler, probably meaning it was selected for inclusion in one of the first exhibitions (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830107) and one a cancelled impression (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830202). Then he bought a delicate impression of the second state in 1893 (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830104). He bought another cancelled state in 1894 (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830201). Then he bought two more slightly differently printed first states, one from Wunderlich's in 1898 (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830105) and finally another, annotated by Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921) as 'Trial Proof by Whistler from finished plate, a most perfect impression F.W.', from Thomas Way (1837-1915) in 1905 (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830106).

33: E.G. Kennedy to Whistler, 10 April 1893, GUW #07214.

34: F.A.S. to Whistler, 18 April 1893, GUW F191.

Early collectors included Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830120); Susan Dwight Bliss (1882-1966) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830144); Alfred Atmore Pope (1842-1913) and Theodate Pope (1867-1946) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830148); John Pomeroy Townsend (1832-1898) and Harry Brisbane Dick (1855-1916) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830117); John Caldwell (fl. 1887-1907) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830150); John L. Gardner and Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), bought from Wunderlich's in 1889 (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830115); Bryan Lathrop (1844-1916) by 1900 (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830102); Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830134); Seth Thomas Jr (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830141); Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919), son of Whistler's West Point master Robert Walter Weir (1803-1889) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830114); Clarence Buckingham (1855-1913) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830103); Francis Bullard (1862-1913) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830112); Albert Henry Wiggin (1868-1951) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830113); Margaret Selkirk Watson Parker (1867-1936) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830125); George W. Davison (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830126); Theodore de Witt (dates unknown) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830131); Atherton Curtis (1863-1944) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830149); Walter M. Hill (1868-1952) and Walter Stanton Brewster (1872-1954) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1830205).