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The Traghetto, No. 2

Impression: Hunterian Art Gallery
Hunterian Art Gallery
Number: 233
Date: 1880
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 243 x 307 mm
Signed: butterfly at lower left (1-3); replaced with a butterfly further up (4-final)
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: 'First Venice Set', 1880
No. of States: 9
Known impressions: 60
Catalogues: K.191; M.188; W.156
Impressions taken from this plate  (60)


The Traghetto, No. 2 is a complex composition, developed through nine states in both etching and drypoint, with noticeable textural effects from foul biting. The Pennells commented :
'In the hand of any professional printer, save Mr Goulding, plates like The Traghetto and The Beggars would be a mass of scratches, though scratches of interest to the artist; it required Whistler's skill as a printer to bring out what he wanted, and to make them what they are ... But there are no such perfect plates in the world as The Beggars, The Traghetto, the two Rivas and The Bridge.' 15


Otto Henry Bacher (1856-1909) and the Pennells record the early history of this plate. Whistler had produced an earlier version of the scene, Traghetto 231, and spoilt it by overworking. In his curiously affected way, Bacher describes what followed in great detail:
'One morning he surprised me by saying: "Whistler has decided to do 'The Traghetto' all over again. Now sit down, and he will tell you just how he is going about it. Whistler will take this first copperplate to his Italian coppersmith and have him make a duplicate in size and thickness. You know what beautiful thin plates he makes. Well, this will take a week. When Whistler gets the new one, he will prepare it with his swellest ground, as you know only Whistler can do. Now, listen! This is the interesting part. Whistler will use your press, of course, and will ink the first plate,—not with black printing ink, mind you,—but with white paint from a tube just the same as that with which you paint pictures. Now what do you think of that?"

"Well, I don't know what to think just yet," I said; "but tell me more about it."

"Well, then, when the plate is inked with white tube paint, cleaned and wiped as for ordinary printing, he will run it through the press and pull a proof on Dutch paper. Whistler will take the new plate, already prepared with a fresh black etching ground. Placing the fresh white proof upon this, he will run it through the press under light pressure, otherwise the white paint pressed on a non-absorbent surface will squash out and blur. You must help me, and, if we are successful, the result ought to be a perfect impression, a replica in white upon a black etching ground."

The result was most gratifying. Every detail worked out exactly as planned. The shining, black surface looked fascinating with its myriads of crisp, white lines. The task now was to find and etch only the lines in the original "Traghetto." Whistler worked for days and days, always with the first beautiful proof before him. Days grew into weeks before he was ready for his favorite nitric acid.

Biting a plate was a serious affair even to Whistler. He usully set aside a day for this trying task, and, as it neared, his gaiety was noticeably affected. ...

When the day arrived, I found him bending over the copper, which was laid flat on the corner of a common kitchen table. There was no bordering wax around the plate, as books say etchers must have; yet Whistler kept the nitric acid swashing to and fro with a feather, which he handled with exceeding nicety. Much of this time his silence was oppressive, and his face wore a troubled look his "dearest enemies," as he called them, never saw. He knew acids played rude tricks, in spite of his magic manipulation.

Arriving at the end of this tedious process of biting and of stopping out, he cleaned the etching ground from the plate with turpentine and examined the lines near the light, testing their depth with the long, shapely nail of his forefinger, which seemed made for this purpose. The lines of the new "Traghetto" plate were pleasant to look upon, and the result seemed to satisfy the great modern master of etching. Still, he had not reached the end of his journey; the final proof was yet to be made.

The launching of this great 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 marvelous first proof.

Whistler placed the two proofs side by side, and minutely compared them. When he came to a variation, he broke the silence, saying, "This bit came nicely, didn't it?" or "I wonder why the acid did not take hold here. See how well it is bitten over there. Whistler may have to do some dry-point work on this place, and possibly a little biting here, and there." Altogether, he seemed pleased ...' 16
Etching: K1910102
Over sixty impressions of the second, successful version, The Traghetto, No. 2, have been located. Bacher watched Whistler printing the first impression (reproduced above), and kept it for himself (). It is a very battered working proof, printed in black ink on cream laid paper.
Letters, lists, invoices and receipts document Whistler's edition of the twelve etchings of the 'First Venice Set' for the Fine Art Society. He delivered eight impressions of The Traghetto, No. 2 on 16 February, twelve on 6 April, two on 25 August and seven on 31 December 1881; single impressions on 9 and 18 April 1883; two on 16 July 1883; two on 15 February and three on 6 March 1884; and six on 29 July 1885. 17

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

By this time Whistler was developing the 'Second Venice Set' for Messrs Dowdeswell. On 18 November 1886 Ernest George Brown (1853/1854-1915) reminded Whistler of his obligations to the Fine Art Society by asking for nine more impressions. 18 Whistler did not exactly rush to deliver them; he sent another three on 25 June 1887 and five on 2 April 1889. 19 It is not known when the plate was cancelled. According to Mansfield, 'The plate in the sixth and seventh states was reworked in 1891.' 20

18: GUW #01181.

19: GUW #01219.

20: Mansfield 1909[more].

The first state was printed in Venice in black ink on what is now badly darkened cream laid paper (). Proofs of other early states have not been located. However, two impressions of the fourth state are in black ink on ivory Japanese (, ) and off-white wove () and a fifth state on cream wove paper (). Several impressions of the fourth (), fifth () and sixth states () are on laid paper with the Arms of Amsterdam watermark.
The fifth state had a slightly larger print-run than earlier states and was on a variety of papers. It included impressions in black ink on ivory laid paper possibly watermarked 'CV' (); cream laid (); cream 'antique' (pre-1800) laid paper () and a similar paper watermarked 'HD VE' (). In addition, some are in dark brown ink on cream wove paper () and on ivory () and buff laid paper (, ).
The first five states were probably printed in 1881 - many of the fifth state impressions are definitely signed with an 1881 butterfly signature (, , , , , , ) although some were signed by Whistler later ().
A couple of sixth states were printed in black ink on ivory laid paper (, ). A seventh state inscribed 'Proof before rework', and kept by the artist, is in dark brown ink on very thin cream Japanese paper ().

A large print-run completed the edition in the eighth and final state. These were mostly printed in dark brown ink. Papers include off-white laid (); ivory 'antique' laid (); ivory 'antique' laid paper watermarked 'I VILLEDARY' (; ); and cream or ivory laid paper with 'J WHATMAN' watermarks (, , ). Several are on laid paper with a Strasbourg Lily watermark (, , , ) and on the latter Whistler noted a distinguishing state change, 'Baby's eyes - rare'.
Cancelled impressions are on ivory laid () and on Strasbourg Lily watermarked ivory laid paper (, ).