Impression: Hunterian Art Gallery
Hunterian Art Gallery
Number: 222
Date: 1879/1880
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 202 x 294 mm
Signed: no
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: 'First Venice Set', 1880
No. of States: 9
Known impressions: 59
Catalogues: K.184; M.181; W.150
Impressions taken from this plate  (59)


Nocturne was published by the Fine Art Society, London, in Venice, a Series of Twelve Etchings (the 'First Venice Set') in 1880.


Nocturne caused a sensation when shown with the 'First Venice Set' at the Fine Art Society in London in 1880. 11 'Artistic printing', where the etched line was manipulated or augmented in printing to produce variations in the resulting impression, and the use of surface ink tone to add colour and atmosphere, was controversial, and Nocturne was the most extreme example of this.

11: London FAS 1880 (cat. no. 4).

Several critics noted the 'artistic printing' of Nocturne. The Daily News critic wrote: 'In "A Nocturne" he has not trusted wholly to the etched line, but depended to some extent on processes of printing.' 12 The St James' Gazette on 9 January 1880 commented : '[it] depends so entirely, not only for its effect but even for its substance, upon the printer, that an impression pulled by any hands other than those of its author would be without any sort of value.' The critic of the British Architect on 10 January 1880 added that it was impossible to print Nocturne in large numbers: 'the bones as it were of the picture have been etched' but it was merely 'brown smoke with clots of ink in diagonal lines', and relied for effect more on accident than skill. 13

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

13: Bell 1987; MacDonald 2001, p. 95.

Whistler used this comment, torn from context, as one of two catalogue notes on Nocturne when it was exhibited again at the Fine Art Society in 1883. 14 The other review quoted in the 1883 catalogue was an unfortunate comment by Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-1894), 'The Nocturne is intended to convey an impression of night.' 15

The Fine Art Society exhibited the 'First Venice Set', including Nocturne, in 1880, 1883 and 1892. 1883 reviews were fairly complimentary. San Biagio [237] and Nocturne were compared both in Building News and the Saturday Review. The Building News commented 'The lights and reflections on the water, as in the "Nocturne Riva" (8) are smudges of brown tint; the latter picture [Nocturne] certainly has feeling, and the reflection of vessels and distant buildings is admirable.' 16 The Saturday Review criticcommented at some length on the two etchings:

14: London FAS 1883 (cat. no. 8).

15: World, 8 December 1880, quoted in Whistler 1883, cat. no. 95; Whistler 1890, p. 95.

16: 'Mr Whistler's Etchings', Building News, 23 February 1883 (GUL PC6/42).

'... in "San Biagio", we find a strikingly broad and true feeling and expression of atmosphere in the sky space seen through the arch; and we find a masterly treatment of the texture and transparency of the water, a treatment indeed which in etching is little short of surprising. This quality is found to a yet greater extent, or perhaps one should say allied with yet another quality, in "Nocturne Riva", where the sky is excellent, and where not only is the water also excellent in depth and reality, but also in some hardly definable way its peculiar colour is artfully suggested to those who know the Venetian waters. No doubt the effect is due to the rendering of the texture suggesting unconsciously the colour also, and if this is so the rendering of the texture demands all the more praise.' 17

17: 'Mr Whistler's Exhibition', Saturday Review, 24 February 1883 (GUL PC 25/32).

Impressions appeared in other print dealer's shows; it was exhibited by H. Wunderlich & Co. in New York in the reprise of the F.A.S. show in 1883, as well as in 1898, when Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) bought an impression (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840302) and (twice) in 1903, while Obach & Co. included impressions in their London show in 1903. 18

Impressions were included in shows organised by clubs, like the Union League Club in New York in 1881, to which one was lent by Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840311), 19 and the Caxton Club in Chicago in 1900, when a 'selected proof' was lent by Bryan Lathrop (1844-1916) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840502). 20 It was popular - as were other Venetian prints - in international exhibitions, and was shown, for instance, in Berlin in 1881 (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840413); Chicago in 1893, lent by Howard Mansfield (1849-1938) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840422); Glasgow in 1901, lent by James Cox-Cox (ca 1849- d.1901); and in Wolverhampton in 1902. 21

Finally, impressions were shown in the Memorial Exhibitions held after Whistler's death. Four were exhibited in the comprehensive Grolier Club exhibition in New York in 1904, and two in the Copley Society exhibition in Boston in the same year, one lent by Mansfield and the other by Mrs Edwin B. Holden. 22 Another impression was shown in Paris in 1905 and one was lent from the Royal Collection to the London Memorial show, also in 1905. 23

18: New York 1883; New York 1898 (cat. no. 129). See REFERENCES : EXHIBITIONS.

19: New York 1881 (cat. nos. 156-67 'Views in Venice').

20: Chicago 1900 (cat. no. 131).

21: Chicago 1893 (cat. no. 2239); Glasgow 1901 (cat. no. 234).

22: New York 1904a (cat. no. 151); Boston 1904 (cat. no. 151).

23: London Mem. 1905 (cat. no. 150).


One of the first proofs of Nocturne appears to have been acquired in Venice by Otto Henry Bacher (1856-1909) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840103). It is likely that Bacher was helping to print the plate or at least provided the printing press. Whistler himself kept proofs of the third and fourth states (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840102, Graphic with a link to impression #K1840204).
Nocturne was printed by Whistler for the Fine Art Society, and so sales outside those by the F.A.S. are limited. Nevertheless Whistler could sell his printer's proofs of different states of the etching, and it was presumably one such proof that he sold to the London print dealer Thomas M. McLean (b. ca 1832) on 28 August 1882 for £6.6.0, and another that was sent to South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) on 2 July 1890 for £10.10.0 (but apparently returned) as well as the '"Riva Nocturne" 1st Proof' that he sold to Frederick Keppel (1845-1912) of F. Keppel & Co. on 13 January 1891 - again for £10.10.0 (Graphic with a link to impression #). 24

24: GUW #13643, #13044, #13068.

However, most collectors bought the official Fine Art Society edition. Early impressions, dating from 1880/1881, were acquired by Francis Seymour Haden, Sr (1818-1910) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840302) - and this was later bought by Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919). Others were owned by Henry Studdy Theobald (1847-1934) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840325), and by several American collectors including Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840311); John Pomeroy Townsend (1832-1898) and Harry Brisbane Dick (1855-1916) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840306); John Caldwell (fl. 1887-1907) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840322); John Work Garrett (1850-1884) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840304) and Walter Steuben Carter (1824-1904) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840301).
Later, Whistler was prepared to sign and annotate impressions if that helped sales. For instance, he wrote 'selected proof' on the verso of a late impression for Henry Lee Higginson (1834-1919) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840504). The unique fifth state, with conspicuous drypoint gondolas, which was annotated by Whistler ''Trial Proof / Early-' (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840202) was bought by Freer in 1903.
Impressions of the eight and ninth states were printed with sensitively wiped plate tone. Bernard Buchanan MacGeorge (1845?-1924) bought such an impression (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840401), as did major American collectors such as Henry Harper Benedict (1844-1935) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840320), Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840405) and Alfred Atmore Pope (1842-1913) (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840428).
Nocturne reached reasonably high prices at auction. At the sale of the collection of Joshua Hutchinson Hutchinson (ca 1829 - d.1891), at Sotheby's in 1892, an impression with dramatic surface inking was bought for £7.10.0 by Deprez & Gutekunst (Graphic with a link to impression #K1840421); it was later sold, probably by F. Keppel & Co., to Albert Henry Wiggin (1868-1951) and given to Boston Public Library. At Christie's in 1897, the London print dealer Robert Dunthorne (b. ca 1851) bought another (with a second etching) from the collection of Mrs Edward Fisher, for £8.18.6. 25

25: Sotheby's, 3 March 1892 (lot 235); Christie's, 13-4 July 1897 (lot 303).

Nocturne is still highly valued and sought after by collectors, as one of the finest and most atmospheric of Whistler's etchings.