The Beggars

Impression: Art Institute of Chicago
Art Institute of Chicago
Number: 190
Date: 1879/1880
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 307 x 212 mm
Signed: butterfly at upper left (1-3); replaced with new butterfly (4); redrawn (5-6); removed (8)
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: 'First Venice Set', 1880
No. of States: 17
Known impressions: 57
Catalogues: K.194; M.191; W.159
Impressions taken from this plate  (57)


arch, child, courtyard, lantern, man standing, , square, woman standing, worker.


'The Beggars' is Whistler's original title, though some catalogues add 'Venice', as in the following examples:

'The Beggars' (1880, F.A.S.). 1
'The Beggars' (1886?, Whistler). 2
'The Beggars' (1886, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 3
'Les Mendiants à Venise' (1892, Société Nationale). 4
'The Beggars; Venice' (1903/1935, possibly Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958)). 5

Whistler's original title 'The Beggars', under which the etching was published, was accepted in all major catalogues.

1: Venice, a Series of Twelve Etchings.

2: Written on Graphic with a link to impression #K1940102.

3: Wedmore 1886 A (cat. no. 159).

4: Paris Soc. Nat. 1892 (cat. no. 1669).

5: Envelope containing copper plate, Hunterian Art Gallery.


Stone pillars flank the entrance to a covered passageway, roofed by wooden beams and supporting a carved wooden architrave. A lantern hangs from the architrave just to left of centre. Beyond the passage is a brightly lit open space and on the far side of this, the doors and windows of houses. A man in broad-brimmed hat and cloak is walking towards the back of the passage at left, and two women water-carriers are entering it from the square beyond. In the right foreground, just inside the passage, is a young woman facing left. She wears a scarf over her head and carries a baby in a shawl in her arms. Beside her, and looking at the viewer, is a little girl with a shawl over her head. For later changes, see STATES.


In the first state the figure of a young woman with a baby and a girl appeared, who were replaced by an old, bearded man and finally with an emaciated old woman with a little girl. None of these models have been identified. It was a very harsh winter in Venice 1879-1880 and there was great hardship, particularly among the poor and beggars. 6

6: Grieve 2000, pp. 36-7, 39.

The rather pretty figure of a young woman and her child may have seemed too attractive and even sentimental for the composition, or they may simply not have been available for further sittings.
The old bearded man has the dignified look of Jews as depicted by Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn (1617-1681). At the beginning of the Ten o'clock Lecture Whistler asserted:
'Art has been maligned. ... She is a goddess of dainty thought--reticent of habit, abjuring all obtrusiveness, purposing in no way to better others. She is, withal, selfishly occupied with her own perfection only - having no desire to teach - seeking and finding the beautiful in all conditions and in all times, as did her high priest Rembrandt, when he saw picturesque grandeur and noble dignity in the Jews' quarter of Amsterdam, and lamented not that its inhabitants were not Greeks.' 7
Comparable figures in Rembrandt's oeuvre include Three Oriental Figures (etching, 1841); the figures to left in Christ preaching (the 'Hundred Guilder Print') (etching, engraving, and drypoint, 1652), Beggar in a high cap, standing and leaning on a stick (etching, 1630). 8 These would have been known through the collection of Francis Seymour Haden, Sr (1818-1910) and from Whistler's own visit to the Rijksmuseum.

8: Bartsch/Hollstein 118, 67, 162; Hind 183, 256, 15 respectively.

Again, this male model was abandoned by Whistler, possibly because he did not fit with Whistler's concept, or became unavailable. The final models were another elderly figure, a gaunt, grim-faced woman, and a waif-like child. The Spectator associated the ragged beggar-woman, who was the final model for Whistler's etching, with Gervaise Coupeau in Emile Zola's 1877 novel L'Assommoir. 9

9: 'Mr Whistler's "Venice"', Spectator, 11 December 1880 (GUL PC4/13); see also Hopkinson 2009b.

The beggars, the water-carriers and the cloaked figure were all etched in Venice. However, on Whistler's return to London, Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913) remembered Whistler's ' infinite pains' over The Beggars:
'he had almost finished the plate whilst in Venice, and everything was satisfactory except the figure of a man walking away through the dark passage. Again and again this figure was taken out and redrawn, but always with a reference to nature, as I know, having done duty as the model.' 10

10: Way 1912, p. 46.


The Sotoportego e Corte de le Carozze, looking south-east towards the Campo Santa Margarita, in Venice, Italy. 11 It was a quiet, sheltered and secluded corner, more suitable for posing to the artist than for begging.

11: Grieve 2000, pp.36-37.

Comparative image
Sotoportego de le Carozze, 2012.
Whistler sat close to the entrance of the watergate to the Rio de Santa Margarita, pictured below:
Comparative image
Photographs © Grischka Petri, Whistler Etchings Project.
A very similar passageway, which has not been identified, is seen in another Venetian etching, Doorway and Vine [191].


The Beggars is the closest Whistler came to the genre tradition of his contemporaries, evoking exotic Italian characters and costume, in a detailed and carefully observed setting, to create a controlled illusion of authenticity.
It can be read as a contemporary genre subject, peopled by three distinct 'types' of Venetian characters: beggars, a romantic and slightly sinister man in broad-brimmed hat and cloak, half-hidden in a dark passage-way or sotto-portico (soto portego), and two young women carrying water, in the bright campo beyond. Contrasts of light and texture are emphasized by the broken, intricately cross-hatched lines with which Whistler drew the wrinkled beggar and decaying bricks and beams, and the light, wiry lines that depict the women. Whistler later changed the young woman with a child to an old man and then to an old woman, with a waif-like child by her side, but the subject's sentimental appeal was denied by its treatment and by the attitude of the beggars, whose dispassionate gaze rejected sympathy. 12

12: MacDonald 2001, pp. 20, 22-23.

Furthermore, MacDonald comments on the work of artists in Venice at the time Whistler was there:
'Whistler's attempt at genre must be seen against the background of his commission, which required twelve recognisable Venetian subjects, and of the current taste for such genre subjects. In Venice there was a large international community of genre painters, and Whistler met many of them. There was Franz Léo Ruben from Munich, Martin Rico y Ortega from Spain, Eugen von Blaas, then a professor at the Accademia in Venice, a young local artist, Ettore Tito, and the Russian, Alexander Nikoljewitsch Wolkoff-Mouromtzoff (also known as Roussoff). They painted Venetians, ancient and modern, wearing picturesque clothes and engaged in leisurely activities in generic Venetian settings ... Luke Fildes' Venetian paintings, ... were popular in Britain and sold as engravings, although the engraved lines, with their mechanical depiction of textures and tones, lacked the expressiveness of etching. Whistler's The Beggars and Fildes' The Venetian Fruit Seller show a common interest in unembellished Venetian life, in compositions of stark simplicity.' 13

13: MacDonald 2001, pp. 22-23, repr. engraving of Fildes' composition published by Virtue & Co. in 1876.