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Sets and Series

The 'Amsterdam Set'


On 21 August Whistler wrote, 'We are off to Holland for a couple of weeks ... and perhaps I may manage to perpetrate some little matters in the way of etching, or water colour'. 1 Whistler and his wife stayed in Amsterdam for nearly two months, from 24 August to 20 October 1889. They stayed at Brack's Doelen Hotel in Amsterdam.

1: Whistler to S. Ford, 21 August [1889], GUW #10997.

During their stay Whistler made fourteen etchings: The Steps, Amsterdam [452], The Square House, Amsterdam [454], Balcony, Amsterdam [446], The Long House (The Dyers, Amsterdam) [453], The Pierrot [450], The Dance House: Nocturne [455], Bridge, Amsterdam [447], The Embroidered Curtain [451], Church, Amsterdam [445], Little Drawbridge, Amsterdam [448], The Mill, Amsterdam [457], Little Nocturne, Amsterdam [456], Jews' Quarter, Amsterdam [449] and Zaandam [458]. Of these two, The Mill, Amsterdam [457] and Zaandam [458], do not show Amsterdam itself. It is likely that the eight largest and most complex compositions were the ones that Whistler thought of as an 'Amsterdam Set':
Impression: K4030305
The Steps, Amsterdam [452]
Impression: K4040202
The Square House, Amsterdam [454]
Impression: K4050302
Balcony, Amsterdam [446]
Impression: K4060203
The Long House (The Dyers, Amsterdam) [453]
Impression: K4070302
The Pierrot [450]
Impression: K4080105
The Dance House: Nocturne [455]
Impression: K4090302
Bridge, Amsterdam [447]
Impression: K4100402
The Embroidered Curtain [451]
However, the two other Dutch subjects were sold with these important etchings, and their horizontal composition added variety to the mainly vertical format of the rest of the set.
Impression: K4160201
Zaandam [458]
Impression: K4130502
The Mill, Amsterdam [457]
By 3 September Whistler was so pleased with progress that he wrote to Marcus Bourne Huish (1843-1904) of the Fine Art Society proposing the publication of a set of ten etchings, to be printed in an edition of 30 plus five kept by himself, and a further two of each state for the F.A.S. and himself:
'I find myself doing far finer work than any that I have hitherto produced - and the subjects appeal to me most sympathetically - which is all important ... I have begun etchings here - that already give me great satisfaction - I shall therefore go on - and I will produce new plates of various sizes. - The beauty & importance of these plates, you can only estimate from your knowledge of my care for my own reputation - and from your experience of myself in the Venice transaction - ... what I have already begun, is of far finer quality than all that has gone before - combining a minuteness of detail, always referred to with sadness by the Critics, who hark back to the Thames etchings, (forgetting that they wrote foolishly about those also, when they first appeared!) with greater freedom and more beauty of execution than even the Venice set, or the last Renaissance lot can pretend to - ... The price of each proof for the public to be from ten guineas up - i.e.. the "quality" will be of that "preciousness" that will class proofs among those for which I habitually ask twelve guineas or more - ... Fine Art Society ... are to pay at once five hundred guineas to my account at Messrs Drummond - five hundred guineas more upon the delivery of the first set of proofs - and the remaining one thousand guineas upon delivery of the entire stock of proofs...
The work will probably be completed by the beginning of next month - so that, what with printing etc - etc. You would be enabled to make your arrangements for a unique and choice little exhibition this coming winter - / A very new feature of which would be the show upon the walls opposite the framed etchings of the destroyed plates - with the pictures still looking like enamels upon them - ' 2

2: GUW #08803.

Huish replied that this was not an economic proposition: the etchings would have to be sold for at least £10.10.0. each, making the complete set £100.5.0, 'which is a solid price.' 3 If they were sold to the trade with the usual one third discount they would not make sufficient profit. Whistler then proposed that the F.A.S. sell the etchings for a higher price, and Huish replied that he could not decide until he had seen them, and went off to shoot in Scotland. 4 Negotiations ceased shortly afterwards, and Whistler decided to print and market the etchings himself.

3: 5 September 1889, GUW #01233

4: 10 September 1889, GUW #01234


By the end of September, just over a month after he had arrived in Amsterdam, Whistler had completed several etchings. On 29 September Beatrice Whistler (1857-1896) wrote to Hermann Wunderlich (ca 1839- d.1892):
'Mr Whistler wishes me to write and thank you for your letter - as he is busy biting in some of the new plates ... Directly the new plates are ready - he will send you a [proof] of each, amounting to probably 10 or 12 as it was understood he should. He thinks that these plates will be among the finest he has done as they are very elaborate in character - and, as they will come from the country of the "Knickerbockers" they ought to be a great success in New York - ' 5

5: GUW #06583.

Back in London Whistler wrote, 'With me as you know the work continually developes new interests and these last etchings of mine have opened up a future beside which the past is mere child's play.' 6

6: To Huish, [27/29 November 1889], GUW #03460.

The main editions of Amsterdam etchings - that is, after the first two or three 'proofs' - were numbered from the end of January to the beginning of March 1890, with most printing being done between 23-25 February, and 5-7 March. The first was The Mill, Amsterdam [457] on 31 January and the last, The Steps, Amsterdam [452] on 7 March. The surviving notations indicate the day of printing Dutch subjects as follows:
'Jan 31' (The Mill, Amsterdam [457]Graphic with a link to impression #K4130z03)
'...Feb.' (The Mill, Amsterdam [457], Graphic with a link to impression #K4130505)
'1. Feb. 23' (The Square House, Amsterdam [454]Graphic with a link to impression #K4040203)
'4. Feb. 23.' (The Pierrot [450]Graphic with a link to impression #K4070z06)
'5. Feb. 23.' (The Pierrot [450]Graphic with a link to impression #K4070402).
Impression: K4040203
The Square House
Impression: K4070402
These impressions of The Square House and Pierrot were both printed on 23 February 1890.
The printing records continue as follows:
'l. Feb. 25-' (The Dance House: Nocturne [455]Graphic with a link to impression #K4080106)
'2 - Feb - 25 - ' (The Pierrot [450]Graphic with a link to impression #K4070413)
'2. Feb. 27.' (The Pierrot [450]Graphic with a link to impression #K4070403)
'7. Mar. 5.' (Graphic with a link to impression #K4120210)
'1. Mar. 6' (Balcony, Amsterdam [446]Graphic with a link to impression #K4050z02)
'1 Mar 6' (The Long House (The Dyers, Amsterdam) [453]Graphic with a link to impression #K4060305)
'1 Mar. 6' (Zaandam [458]Graphic with a link to impression #K4160215)
'2. Mar. 6' (The Long House (The Dyers, Amsterdam) [453]Graphic with a link to impression #K4060304)
'2. Mar. 6' (Zaandam [458]Graphic with a link to impression #K4160204)
'3. mar. 6' (Bridge, Amsterdam [447]Graphic with a link to impression #K4090307)
'4. Mar. 6' (The Long House (The Dyers, Amsterdam) [453], Graphic with a link to impression #K4060303)
'5. Mar. 6' (The Long House (The Dyers, Amsterdam) [453], Graphic with a link to impression #K4060302)
'5. Mar. 6' Zaandam (Graphic with a link to impression #K4160214)
'7. Mar. 6' Zaandam (Graphic with a link to impression #K4160215).
Impression: K4060302
Long House - Dyer’s - Amsterdam
Impression: K4060303
Long House - Dyer’s - Amsterdam
Impression: K4160204
Impression: K4160215
For example, these impressions, illustrated above, of Long House - Dyer’s - Amsterdam and Zaandam were all printed on 6 March 1890.
Thus three impressions are dated 23 February, two, 25 February, one, 27 February, and at least ten impressions of four etchings (Balcony, Amsterdam, Long House - Dyer’s - Amsterdam, Bridge, Amsterdam and Zaandam) on 6 March. Three of those recorded on 6 March have identical numbering, '2. Mar. 6' (Balcony, Amsterdam, Long House - Dyer’s - Amsterdam and Zaandam). In addition there is one pair dated '1. Mar. 6', Balcony, Amsterdam and Long House - Dyer’s - Amsterdam; and another pair dated '5. Mar. 6' , Zaandam and again, Long House - Dyer’s - Amsterdam. This suggests that Whistler was printing between one and three impressions of these four Dutch etchings on the same day, and possibly selecting ones for prospective clients.
There are no extant records of printing The Embroidered Curtain [451], Church, Amsterdam [445], Little Nocturne, Amsterdam [456] or Jews' Quarter, Amsterdam [449]. This may be simply that the records have been lost, or that Whistler and his wife changed their recording methods. However, it is also clear that some of these may have been 'proved' in Amsterdam but most impressions were not printed until later. For instance, Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) had still not seen The Embroidered Curtain by 28 April when he wrote to Whistler, 'I have just received word from N. Y. of the arrival there of another new etching by you entitled "The Lace Curtain" will you be so kind as to send me one; choosing a good impression and writing my name on the back - ' 7

7: GUW #01501.

Sales & Exhibitions

Interviews with Whistler
This etching was mentioned favourably in 'A Chat With Mr Whistler' on 13 March 1890:
'Mr Whistler is not given to paying compliments to himself ... but in the chat I had with him over a cup of tea he admitted that his etchings of Amsterdam were, in his opinion, the best work he had ever given to the public. Last November Mr Whistler looked about him got new worlds to conquer, and elected to visit Amsterdam, which he thinks one of the most picturesque cities in Europe. He packed up his copper plates, his wax candles, his acids, his etching needles, and the various tools of the etcher, and proceeded to the quaint old capital of the Low Countries. The result will be given to the world in a series of ten etchings, which are practically completed. Proofs of these, enclosed in their dainty frames of white with black bars, reposed on the studio floor with their faces to the wall, and one after the other they were placed on the easel.' 8
The Pennells wrote at length - and praised to the skies - Whistler's Dutch etchings. their account is as follows:
'The year after his marriage and the summer in Touraine, he went to Holland, where he made seventeen plates in and around Dordrecht and Amsterdam, producing the wonderful Nocturne: Dance House, The Embroidered Curtain, The Balcony, the Zaandam in which he surpassed Rembrandt in Rembrandt's own subjects. His success is the more surprising because scarcely anywhere does the artist work under such difficulties as in Holland. The little Dutch boys are the worst in the world, and the grown people can be as bad. In Amsterdam, the women in the houses on one of the canals, where Whistler sat in a boat working, objected, and emptied basins of water out of the windows above him. He only managed to dodge them just in time, and he had to call on the police, when, he told us, the next interruption was a big row above him, and "I looked up, dodging the filthy pails to see the women vanishing backward, being carried off to wherever they carry people in Holland. After that, I had no more trouble, but I always had a policeman whenever I had a boat."' 9

9: Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908, II, pp. 83-84.

Impression: K4160215
Zaandam [458]
The Pennells continued:
' In the Dutch plates he returned more to the methods perfected at Venice in The Traghetto and The Beggars. After he brought the work back to London, he was interviewed on the subject for the 'Pall Mall Gazette (4 March 1890), and is reported to have said :

' "First you see me at work on the Thames (producing one of the famous series). Now, there you see the crude and hard detail of the beginner. So far, so good. There, you see, all is sacrificed to exactitude of outline. Presently, and almost unconsciously, I begin to criticise myself, and to feel the craving of the artist for form and colour. The result was the second stage, which my enemies call inchoate, and I call Impressionism. The third stage I have shown you. In that I have endeavoured to combine stages one and two. You have the elaboration of the first stage, and the quality of the second."

'Though we hesitate to accept the words throughout as his, this is still an interesting statement inspired by him of his development as an etcher, and a suggestive description of his aims in the Dutch series. For you find in some of the plates more detail than he gave in the Venetian, and yet form is expressed not in the outline of the London prints, but in the broken line of the work that followed, and you see, as you really would in looking at Nature, the effect of a landscape, or a house, as a whole and not in its intricate and subordinate parts. You see it also with a richness of colour that etchers have seldom obtained without a mass of cross-hatching that takes away from the spontaneity and freshness of the impression. It is curious to contrast the distant views of the town of Amsterdam and the windmills of Zaandam with Rembrandt's etchings of similar subjects, and to note the greater feeling of space and distance that Whistler gives by his simplification of the foreground and his sacrifice of certain facts, so that he might render on his copper the appearance, the aspect, which the actual scene presented to his eyes. The work is more elaborate and delicate than in any previous plates, so delicate sometimes that it seems underbitten. But the method necessitated this. He drew with such minuteness that hardly any of the ground, the varnish, is left on the plates, and when he bit them, he could only bite very slightly to prevent the delicate modelling from being lost. He never had been so successful in applying his scientific theories to etching, and rarely more satisfied with the results. ' 10

10: ibid. pp. 84-86.

Exhibitions: London and New York 1890
The first exhibition was arranged by the dealer Robert Dunthorne (b. ca 1851), who was the first recorded purchaser of the etchings: he bought ten impressions -Little Drawbridge, Amsterdam [448], The Steps, Amsterdam [452], The Square House, Amsterdam [454], Zaandam [458], Balcony, Amsterdam [446], The Long House (The Dyers, Amsterdam) [453], The Pierrot [450], The Dance House: Nocturne [455] and probably two more, on 17 February 1890. 11

11: [Exhibition], Dunthorne's Gallery at the Rembrandt Head, London, 1890.

Joseph Pennell saw the first exhibition of the Amsterdam etchings in London: 'His first idea was to publish the prints, like the two Venetian series in a Set through the Fine Art Society, but nothing came of it. A few were bought at once for the South Kensington and Windsor Collections, and several were shown that spring in Mr. Dunthorne's gallery. About this time, we returned for a few months to London and J. [Joseph Pennell (1860-1926)] commenced to write occasionally in the London press, succeeding Mr. George Bernard Shaw as art critic on the Star.'
The review of the Amsterdam etchings at Dunthorne's is as follows
'"I stepped in at Dunthorne's the other afternoon, to have a look at the etchings of Amsterdam by Mr. Whistler. There are only eight of them, I think, but they are eight of the most exquisite renderings by the most independent man of the century. With two exceptions they are only studies of very undesirable lodgings and tenements on canal banks, old crumbling brick houses reflected in sluggish canals, balconies with figures leaning over them, clothes hanging in decorative lines, a marvellously graceful figure carelessly standing in the great water-door of an overhanging house, every figure filled with life and movement, and all its character expressed in half a dozen lines. The same houses, or others, at night, their windows illuminated and casting long trailing reflections in the water, seemed to be singularly unsuccessful, the plate being apparently under-bitten and played out. At any rate, that was the impression it produced on me. ... Another there was, of a stretch of country looking across a canal, windmills beyond, drawn as no one since Rembrandt could have done it, and in his plate the greatest of modern etchers has pitted himself against the greatest of the ancients, and has come through only too successfully for Rembrandt. There are three or four others, I understand not yet published; but this, certainly is the gem so far. The last is a great drawbridge, with suggestions of trees and houses, figures and boats, and a tower in the distance, done, I believe, from a canal in Amsterdam. This is the fourth distinct series of etchings, which Mr. Whistler has in the last thirty or thirty-five years given the world; the early miscellaneous French and English plates; the Thames series, valued by artists more than by collectors, though even to the latter they are worth more than their weight in gold; the Venetian plates; and now these; and between while, portraits as full of character as Rembrandt's, studies of London and Brussels, and I know not what else besides have come from his ever busy needle. Had Mr. Whistler never put brush to canvas, he has done enough in these plates to be able to say that he will not altogether die." 12

12: Ibid., pp. 84-86.

The Dance House: Nocturne [455]
The next exhibition was arranged by the Grolier Club in New York, to which Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) lent his 'set', which included the etching illustrated above. 13 Freer had visited Whistler in person on 4 March 1890 and bought ten etchings for himself and for his mentor and rival collector, Howard Mansfield (1849-1938). He wrote:

13: [Exhibition of watercolours, pastels and etchings belonging to C. L. Freer], Grolier Club, New York, 1890.

'My visit with yourself and Mrs Whistler was the event of my trip, and I shall long have reason to remember most pleasantly the hospitality you both bestowed - ... Next week an important exhibition of your work consisting of a selection of your etchings ... including the ten Amsterdam prints is to be held in the new Club house of The Grolier Club in N. Y. City - It will undoubtedly attract much attention -' 14

14: 31 March 1890, GUW #01500

Freer listed these exhibits as follows: 'Pierrot... Long House (The Dyers) ... Zaandam ... Steps ... The Mill ... The Square House ... The Dance House (Nocturne) ... The Balcony ... The Little Drawbridge ... The Bridge.' Freer's purchases in 1890 were fine early impressions:
Impression: K4070402
Impression: K4060203
Impression: K4160203
Impression: K4030303
Impression: K4130102
Impression: K4040203
Impression: K4080103
Impression: K4050302
Impression: K4120102
Impression: K4090203
After the show Freer wrote: 'I presume Mr Mansfield has written you about the charming Exhibition of your work recently made at the Grolier Club in New York ... Many N. Y. artists attended the exhibition and were particularly delighted with your latest work -' 15

15: 28 April 1890, GUW #01501.

Select Bibliography


Cuttings in Whistler's press-cutting album, Glasgow University Library, Special Collections (GUL PC 11):
  • Anon., Manchester Guardian, 17 December 1889 (GUL PC 11/19)
  • Anon., Glasgow Herald, 18 December 1889 (GUL PC 11/19)
  • Anon., 'Art Gossip', Oracle, 21 December 1889 (GUL PC 11/19)
  • Anon., The Lady, 2 January 1889 (GUL PC 11/19)
  • Anon., Woman, 3 January 1889 (GUL PC 11/19)
  • Anon., Sun, 12 January 1889 (GUL PC 11/19)
  • Anon., Home Journal, 22 January 1889 (GUL PC 11/20)
  • Anon., New York Herald, 20 February 1890 (GUL PC 11/21)
  • Anon., New York Herald, 21 February 1890 (GUL PC 11/21)
  • Anon., 'A Chat with Mr Whistler, Pall Mall Budget, 13 March 1890 (GUL PC 11/21)
  • Anon., 'New Etchings', Saturday Review, 15 March 1890 (GUL PC 11/22)
  • Anon., [Albert Kinross?], 'At the League of Youth - I, The Outlook of Men and Women, 3 June 1899, p. 584.


  • Heijbroek, J. F., 'Holland van het water: de bezoeken van James Abbott McNeill Whistler aan Nederland,' Bulletin Rijksmuseum, 1988, vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 225-56.
  • Heijbroek, J. F. and Margaret F. MacDonald, Whistler and Holland, Zwolle and Amsterdam, 1997.
  • Kennedy, Edward G., The Etched Work of Whistler, New York, 1910 (cat. nos. 403-416).
  • Mansfield, Howard, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etchings and Dry-Points of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Chicago, 1909.
  • Mansfield, Howard, Whistler in Belgium and Holland, New York, 1935 (cat. nos. 402-414).
  • Lochnan, Katharine A., The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1984, chap. 4.
  • James McNeill Whistler, Tate Gallery, London; Musée d'Orsay, Paris; and National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1994-1995, pp. 243-246.
  • Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908, II, pp. 83-86.


Substantial groups of Dutch etchings were shown in the following exhibitions:
  • [Exhibition], Dunthorne's Gallery at the Rembrandt Head, London, 1890
  • [Exhibition of watercolours, pastels and etchings belonging to C. L. Freer], Grolier Club, New York, 1890
  • Exposition Générale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1890
  • World's Columbian Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, Chicago, 1893
  • Exhibition of Etchings, Drypoints. and Lithographs by Whistler, H. Wunderlich and Co., New York, 1898
  • 2nd Exhibition, Pictures, Drawings, Prints and Sculptures, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, London, 1899
  • An Exhibition of Etchings and Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler, The Caxton Club, 1900
  • Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, 1901
  • Internationale Kunstausstellung, Dresden, 1901
  • 71st Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1902
  • [Exhibition of recently acquired works], Dresden, Kupferstich-Kabinett, 1902
  • A Collection of Etchings and Dry Points by Whistler recently acquired, H. Wunderlich and Co., New York, 1903
  • Exhibition of Etchings by James McNeill Whistler, Obach and Co., London, 1903
  • Etchings and Dry-Points by James McNeill Whistler, The Grolier Club, New York, 1904
  • Etchings and Dry-Points by James McNeill Whistler, The Grolier Club, New York, 1904
  • Etchings and Dry-Points by James McNeill Whistler, The Grolier Club, New York, 1904
  • Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Copley Hall, Boston, February 1904
  • Etchings and Dry-Points by James McNeill Whistler, The Grolier Club, New York, 1904
  • Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the late James McNeill Whistler, First President of The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, New Gallery, Regent Street, London, 1905
  • Oeuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'École des Beaux-Art, Paris, 1905
  • Tentoonstelling van Aquarellen, Pastels, Teekingen, Etsen, Lithogaphien en een Schildrij door James McNeill Whistler, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1906