The Unsafe Tenement

Impression: Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Number: 18
Date: 1858
Medium: etching
Size: 158 x 226 mm
Signed: 'Whistler.' at lower right
Inscribed: 'Imp. Delatre. Rue St. Jacques. 171.' at lower left (2-3); erased (4)
Set/Publication: 'French Set', 1858
No. of States: 4
Known impressions: 76
Catalogues: K.17; M.17; T.5; W.7
Impressions taken from this plate  (76)


building, dog, farm, farmyard, girl, half-timbered, hayrack, kennel, people, woman.


There are considerable changes in title by Whistler and others. Examples are as follows:

'The Old Farm' (1858, Whistler). 1
'The Unsafe Tenement' (1858, Whistler). 2
'The Old Farm' (1861, V&A). 3
'L'habitation dangereuse' (1870s, Whistler). 4
'The Old Farm' (1874, Whistler). 5
'The Unsafe Tenement' (1874, Ralph Thomas, Jr (1840-1876)). 6
'The Dangerous Habitation' (1881, Union League Club). 7
'The Unsafe Tenement' (1886, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 8

The title was changed by Whistler between the publication of the 'French Set' in Paris and London in 1858. There is some doubt as to whether Whistler preferred the simple, original title, 'The Old Farm', to the more evocative title 'The Unsafe Tenement'. However, there is a problem with the word 'tenement', which had different meanings at different times and in different countries. A tenement was a building containing rented accomodation for several families, with common rights to the hall, stairs, yards and privies.

In the mid-1870s Whistler suggested another possible title, 'L'habitation dangereuse', which was translated by Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904) for the exhibition catalogue in 1881 as 'The Dangerous Habitation'. A more correct translation would be 'The dangerous house' or 'dangerous building' but this sounds rather awkward. 'Unsafe' does not carry quite as much emphasis as 'dangerous', but it is still not particularly appropriate.

1: Douze eaux-fortes d'après Nature.

2: Twelve Etchings from Nature.

3: 1 January 1861, V&A, Register for Prints, p. 33.

4: Inscription on Graphic with a link to impression #K0170101.

5: London Pall Mall 1874 (cat. no. 49).

6: Thomas 1874 (cat. no. 5).

7: New York 1881 (cat. no. 9).

8: Wedmore 1886 A (cat. no. 7).

The building etched by Whistler looks much more like an old timbered farmhouse that has been adapted at various times and is being used as a hay-barn and perhaps as a stable and dovecote as well. 'The Old Farm' is not only Whistler's original title but is a more accurate and generally comprehensible title.
Nevertheless The Unsafe Tenement is the name by which this etching has become known and remains the acknowledged title.


A one-storey timber-framed farmhouse with attics, and outbuildings. The shingled roof, gables and doors are half-ruined. A dog is lying on the ground at bottom left, near a kennel. A little girl stands outside the half-opened door of what may be a privy in the centre and another child's face is visible inside. To right of them - leaning against the privy - is a long, low pile of hay, and behind it, a ladder leaning against the building. To right of this there is a small roofed extension with two holes under the eaves - possibly for birds - and to right again, a door. At far right, a barrel lies on the ground in front of two hay racks, which lean against the gable end of another building. In the first state a woman with a brush stood to right of the dog, but she was replaced by a hay-fork in later states (see STATES).


This was probably etched in north-eastern France. Wedmore stated 'The scene is in Alsace Lorraine.' 9

The territory of Alsace-Lorraine was created by the German Empire in 1871 after it annexed most of Alsace and the Moselle region of Lorraine following its victory in the Franco-Prussian War. The Alsatian part lay on the west bank of the Rhine and east of the Vosges Mountains, the Lorraine part in the Moselle valley to north of the Vosges Mountains. It reverted to France in 1919, to Germany in 1940, and to France by 1945.

9: Wedmore 1886 A (cat. no. 7).


Lochnan comments on the possible influence of Dutch artists, particularly Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn (1617-1681), and later French print-makers including Charles Jacque (1813-1894):
'Whistler reveals a debt to Jacque and to the seventeenth-century Dutch etching tradition. The Unsafe Tenement may be compared to Jacque's plates Chaumière de paysans, G.78 and Maison du Paysan à Cricey, G.14, both of which take dilapidated half-timbered farmhouses for their subjects and employ peasant figures for staffage. Whistler used the same vocabulary of line and strong chiaroscuro found in Jacque to describe some areas of the wall in minute detail, while leaving others virtually unworked. He dramatized the composition by showing the building in raking light with a great web of black shadow. The carefully delineated contours and the short curved and vertical lines, sometimes crossed by horizontal lines to create a grid of shadow, once again recall the line of Charles Jacque.
Jacque had learned to etch when the technique had been all but forgotten by studying the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch etchers Rembrandt, van Ostade, Ruysdael and Du Jardin. Whistler would have been familiar with their work in the original from the Haden collection, and in etching The Unsafe Tenement was probably thinking of such Dutch prototypes as Jacob van Ruisdael's The Little Bridge, B.1.' 10

10: Lochnan 1984, pp. 36-38.

The comparison with the etching Maison du Paysan à Cricey (1843) by Charles Jacque (1813-1894) is particularly telling. 11 Jacque's composition with its diagonal structure, strong shadows, and broken, wriggly lines, could well have influenced Whistler.

11: Isham Collection, New York Public Library, MEZAC 487470.