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The Palaces

Impression: Art Institute of Chicago
Art Institute of Chicago
Number: 223
Date: 1879/1880
Medium: etching, drypoint and open bite
Size: 252 x 358 mm
Signed: butterfly at upper left (4-5); removed (6)
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: 'First Venice Set', 1880
No. of States: 6
Known impressions: 56
Catalogues: K.187; M.184; W.153
Impressions taken from this plate  (56)


The plate was begun in pure etching, and later states include drypoint as well as extensive use of foul biting and open bite. Whistler may have introduced the foul biting in the second state accidentally, while rebiting and strengthening window and ornament detail on the palace at right, or it could be the result of brushing acid over that part of the copper plate, to create a light granular tone. If initially accidental, Whistler clearly chose to exploit the shaded effect it produced, as many impressions show clear evidence that small areas of the granular tone were burnished out to create subtle highlights (for example, on the window panes). This use of foul biting was interpreted by an art critic at the time for ink tone left on the copper plate:
'the shadow on part of the building is apparently done by hand in the printing, that is to say it is not in the etched lines of the plate, but is a more or less skilful manipulation of ink on the part of the printer before the plate is put in the press. We say "more or less" because a large piece of the shadow has been allowed to spread itself over the sky.' 9
More dramatic tonal passages appear, etched into the plate, in the sixth and final state. Again, these middle tones may have been accidental by-products of rebiting the darkest lines of shading on the roofs and walls, or they may represent Whistler's conscious effort to etch grey areas into the plate. This tonal modulation is particularly effective on the right chimney of the palace at left as well as the peaked roof to the right of it. Similar tone provides varied and effective contrasts at left, on either side of the closed doorway behind the largest shaded gondola, and on the rightmost building. Some new granular tone above the roofline at centre has been reduced but not completely removed. The resulting irregular patches add definition to that part of the sky. 10

10: Hausberg, Margaret D., 'Whistler Etchings: New Observations' , Print Quarterly, 24, 2007, pp. 11-21.


Over fifty impressions of The Palaces have been located. Most early impressions were printed in black ink. The first proof, on a thick ivory Japanese paper - possibly proofing paper - remained in Whistler's possession (). Another trial proof is on off-white Asian laid paper (). The second state was on a pale buff paper () and the fourth on ivory laid paper (). All these exist in only one or two proof impressions.
Letters, lists, invoices and receipts document Whistler's edition of the twelve etchings of the 'First Venice Set' for the Fine Art Society. The F.A.S. recorded that Whistler delivered six impressions of The Palaces on 16 February, fourteen on 6 April, and three on 25 August 1881; three impressions on 24 January 1882; single impressions on 18 April and 13 July 1883; one on 15 February and one on 6 March 1884; eight on 29 July 1885; six on 13 January and seven on 25 June 1887; and five on 2 April 1889, a total of 56. 11

11: F.A.S. to Whistler, 20 December 1888, GUW #01217.

The main print-run was in the fifth state. Impressions are on a variety of papers. Impressions dating from 1881 are in black ink on paper with a fairly wide margin, one on dark ivory Japan paper (), others on laid (, , , ) and one on a thick cream wove paper (). Two on ivory laid paper from this date were trimmed, not necessarily by Whistler, at a later date, leaving the early 1880s butterfly on a tab (, ). Several, all dating from 1881, were also marked in pencil with small notations, probably by the artist keeping a record of printing or to aid in selection: these include ones marked '4' (); '6. x' (); 'Rx.' (); 'w.' and '7' (); and possibly '8' (). It is likely that other similar notes have been removed or are simply no longer visible.

Most later impressions, however, printed in the mid-1880s, were trimmed and signed on the tab by Whistler at that time. Although a few are in black ink - one on a thick, glossy, dark ivory Japan paper () and another on light weight ivory laid () - most are in dark brown ink. A high proportion of these are on watermarked laid paper, including the Strasbourg Lily over 'GR' () and Arms of Amsterdam (, , , , , ).

For several later (1887-1889) impressions, of the sixth state, Whistler reverted to black ink, printing on laid paper with a Strasbourg Lily and '1814' watermark (, , , ), and one with the Strasbourg Lily over initials, possibly 'LR' (). Two other late prints are in warm black or very dark brown ink on ivory laid paper watermarked 'Harris & McMurdo 1814' (, ).
Whistler sent an impression from Paris to the F.A.S. in 1892, noting that he had marked it specially to be sent to Howard Mansfield (1849-1938). 12 Unfortunately this has not been located. It is just possible that it was an impression of the sixth state marked with a tiny 'c' on the verso () or another marked 'cc' () or a third marked 'ooo' ().

12: Whistler to M.B. Huish, [February/August 1892], GUW #02968.

By then there was only one more impression to be printed, and the plate seems to have been cancelled in July or August 1892, though it is not clear when the plate was sent to the F.A.S. 13

Whistler retained impressions of several states, which were in his studio on his death and bequeathed to Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958), who gave one () and bequeathed others to the University of Glasgow (, ), including a cancelled impression ().

13: Whistler to M.B. Huish, 22 and 29 June 1892, GUW #01246, #02949; E.G. Brown to Whistler, 21 October 1892, #01257.