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Impression: Art Institute of Chicago
Art Institute of Chicago
Number: 231
Date: 1879/1880
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 240 x 311 mm
Signed: butterfly at lower left (1-2); replaced with new butterfly (3-final)
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: no
No. of States: 4
Known impressions: 7
Catalogues: K.190; M.187
Impressions taken from this plate  (7)


The plate for Traghetto went through a number of changes in etching and drypoint but was left unfinished.


Whistler told Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932): 'I have found ... the first proof of the Traghetto - pulled on old wooden Press in Venice, as you will see marked on back'. 9 This was the impression marked 'first proof' by Whistler on the tab (). It was printed in black ink on cream laid paper with a partial watermark of a Strasbourg Lily and 'VGZ'. It was this impression that Otto Henry Bacher (1856-1909) saw pinned to the wall in Whistler's rooms near the Frari, and exclaimed 'Oh, what a bully etching that is!' Bacher records that Whistler then showed him later proofs, saying:

9: 4 July 1892, GUW #09689.

'"Whistler will let you have a look at a better proof, drawn from the same plate in a later state." As he placed the new print before me he remarked: "I daresay you will notice the vast improvement. This is the second state of the plate." 10

At the first glance I noticed that he had added many new lines, thereby losing much of the life and charm of the first beautiful proof. By comparing the two prints, it seemed that he was losing his grip on that plate. Divining that I perceived this, a shadow of disappointment crossed his face as he brought me the third proof of the same plate. This last one represented the actual, sad condition of the copperplate as it was then. Horrors! What a shock ran through me! The plate was ruined, irrevocably ruined! I was stunned for a moment, and falteringly questioned him for the reasons that had influenced him to dare to add another line to the finished state of the copperplate which had yielded such a glorious proof as I had before me on the wall.

"I changed it because a duffer—a duffer—a painter—thought it was incomplete." This was all he said, but he seemed very bitter.

On several occasions, after he had moved to the Casa Jankovitz, he mentioned "The Traghetto" plate. It troubled him very much. He would say "I wonder how Whistler can get the plate back again like the first proof. Whistler must find some way to do it." / One morning he surprised me by saying: "Whistler has decided to do 'The Traghetto' all over again.'
Less than ten impressions of the first version of Traghetto are known. All have the appearance of working proofs. They were all printed in black ink, and all printed in Venice. Another impression of the first state and one of the third were printed in black ink on cream laid paper, with a VAN GELDER watermark (, ). One of the second state was printed on heavy-weight cream Asian laid paper () and the third state on ivory Japanese (). Another third state is on ivory laid paper (), and an impression of the final state on buff wove paper, torn up, of which only the left half survived in Whistler's studio ().
The Pennells relied on Bacher for their account of the subsequent history of this plate and the transfer of the composition to a second plate, The Traghetto 233:
'He had another copper of the same size and thickness made by the Venetian from whom they all got their plates. When this was ready, the first plate was "inked" with white paint, instead of black ink, passed through the press, and a proof pulled. This was placed on the second plate, already varnished, which was then run through the press. The result was "a replica in white upon the black etching ground." Mr Bacher says that upon the new plate Whistler worked for days and weeks with the first proof before him, that he might find and etch only the lines in the original.
The printing of this plate was an exciting moment. As the gentle old printer of Venice pulled the plate through the massive wooden rollers, heavily padded with felt blankets, nothing was heard but the squeaking of the old wooden press. It was the supreme moment of joy or of keen disappointment it - was the end of the journey and, fortunately, the new proof was exquisite. It was another Traghetto, the one we now know, but it was not a duplicate of that marvellous first proof. Whistler placed the two proofs side by side and minutely compared them." And he was pleased ...' 11