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The Beggars

Impression: Art Institute of Chicago
Art Institute of Chicago
Number: 190
Date: 1879/1880
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 307 x 212 mm
Signed: butterfly at upper left (1-3); replaced with new butterfly (4); redrawn (5-6); removed (8)
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: 'First Venice Set', 1880
No. of States: 17
Known impressions: 57
Catalogues: K.194; M.191; W.159
Impressions taken from this plate  (57)


The etching was undoubtedly begun in Venice in 1879, and probably reworked in Venice. The Pennells thought there were two plates, because the first composition was radically different from the second, but this is not so, they were definitely done on the same plate. 18

18: Pennell 1908[more], p. 284.

Etching: c_K194_02
The Beggars - Winter m0727, chalk and pastel, 1879/1880,
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution.
A drawing, The Beggars - Winter m0727, shows the main features of this etching, as it appeared in the original composition. It shows the passage, a young woman and child in the foreground (on the left), and figures in the square beyond the passageway. There are differences between the drawing and the print. First, the composition is in reverse, with the figures being on the left in the drawing (as they are on the copper plate), and on the right in the print. The drawing shows traces of lightly incised lines that may have been used to transfer the composition from a proof of the etching to the brown paper (they are not heavy enough to have transferred the drawing to the copper plate) and this would explain why the composition is reversed. The drawing is rather more rough and less detailed than the print, particularly in its depiction of the entrance and top of the passageway. There are also slight differences in the buildings seen beyond the passage, and in the head of the little girl.
The etching was radically reworked on Whistler's return to London. Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913) relates how he posed for the cloaked figure in the middle distance. 19

A second drawing, in wash, Study for 'The Beggars' (K194) m0864, shows the composition at a later stage, and is dated 'Sep. 18.1881'.

19: Way 1912[more].


Whistler printed proofs of The Beggars both in Venice and London. He delivered five impressions to the Fine Art Society on 16 February 1881, thirteen on 6 April, four on 25 August, and six on 31 December. 20 These would have been impressions of the first seven states - mostly signed in the margin with the large butterfly with shaded wings (i.e. , ).

20: GUW #01137.

Etching: K1940204
These early states were printed in black ink on a variety of eastern and western papers. The first state, for instance - reproduced above - is on off-white Asian laid paper () and the second on ivory laid western paper (), followed by the third state in black ink on ivory laid paper with the watermark of a coat of arms surmounted by a plumed helmet (). The next three states are all on laid paper, including the Pro Patria watermark (), and two with an '1814' watermark (, ). Two impressions of the seventh state are on an ivory wove paper (, ), and one on cream laid ().
The F.A.S. were dissatisfied with this slow progress, suggesting that Whistler did not have to do all the printing himself, but Whistler challenged them vigorously: 'you have only to send at once for the plates - and rely upon Mr. Goulding or others for "Nocturnes" & "Doorways" "Beggars" & "Lagoons"' - in which case Whistler would refuse 'to print from the degraded plate'. 21

21: Whistler to M. B. Huish, 22 February 1882, GUW #01145.

The F.A.S. had to be content with Whistler's snail-like progress. On 9 April 1883 he delivered a single 'proof', on 16 July, a further six; on 15 February 1884, two, and on 29 July 1885, eight. 22 In November 1886 Ernest George Brown (1853/1854-1915) begged for three more, which may be the three delivered on 13 January 1887. Whistler sent another five on 25 June 1887 - this made a total of 48 delivered in all.

22: Whistler to F.A.S., [9 August 1883], GUW #12991; #12992, #12994.

At this point, in the mid-1880s, Whistler tried out dark brown ink for a warmer effect, on cream laid paper for some impressions (i.e. ).
Etching: K1940703
Some sheets have counter- or watermarks such as 'VCH' (), 'CDC' () and 'VI' or 'IV' (). Two twelfth states (, ) and one sixteenth () are in dark brown ink on ivory laid paper with the Strasbourg Lily watermark. There is a fairly large print-run of the twelfth state.

Two more impressions were sent by Whistler on 2 April 1889, at which point, by F.A.S. reckoning, 55 had been delivered, leaving 45 still to be printed. 23

Little more than a month later, Brown begged for a dozen more. 24 Mansfield thought that the final state 'was the result of reworking in 1891' but it is more likely that it was between 1892 and 1894. 25

Eventually, in 1892, in response to repeated pleas, the F.A.S. received a further half a dozen, leaving 39 still to go. 26 Whistler sent several packages of Venetian prints by post, but one of the packages, containing six impressions of The Beggars, was pierced right through by suspicious Customs officials. The F.A.S. was horrified and the artist was furious, but the firm assured Whistler that the prints could be repaired. 27

Several impressions do have minor damage, but this may not be the fault of Customs officials. For instance an impression of the 11th state has a hole in the centre (), but no other impression of this state has similar damage recorded, so it might just be a worm hole. A 15th state has a small tear at upper left () and the following state, a small tear at lower left (). In each case the damage is carefully repaired, and it may be that the damage mentioned by the F.A.S. was indeed minor and the repairs have not been noticed, or it may be that some impressions were simply destroyed. However, after several reminders, Whistler promised to try and complete the editions:

23: 18 Nov. 1886, GUW #01181; R. J. Dewar, receipt, #12996; #01191; F.A.S. to Whistler, 20 Dec. 1888-1889, #01217.

24: 13 May 1889, GUW #01224

25: Mansfield 1909[more] (cat. no. 191).

26: Whistler to Huish, 22 June 1892, GUW #01246.

27: Huish to Whistler, 1 and 29 July 1892, GUW #01248, #01254; Brown to Whistler, 2 July 1892, #01249.

'even were I able to begin again at once, it would take endless trouble & much time to get those two plates again into the condition in which they will give proofs of the same beauty as those harmed when great labour & much thought has been expended in getting a plate into perfect condition for the press, it is wise that such plate should be printed right out - in spite of the momentary want of popularity.' 28
Three months later, in October, Brown was asking for more impressions of The Beggars. Indeed the F.A.S. sent requests at intervals for several years, using different ploys to entice Whistler to deliver, including the proposal of an exhibition, the provision of Japanese or 'old Dutch' paper, and the present of a brace of grouse! 29 Whistler accepted the grouse and the paper, but said he was too busy to print.

'All this great over refinement and anxiety for the perfection of quantity is dead loss & vexation -' he said, 'for my own reputation, the complete beauty of one proof is enough - & the production of scores of the same plate is really a madness!' 30

In June 1894 Marcus Bourne Huish (1843-1904) again begged for prints to satisfy orders and Whistler sent off a single proof of The Beggars, for which he received 12.12.0, and then, on 10 August, two 'superb proofs -' on Japanese paper (possibly , , ) . 31 These prints were, Whistler claimed:

29: i.e. Brown to Whistler, 7 October 1892, GUW #01256; 4 May 1893, #01261; Whistler to Huish, [14 August 1894], #01277.

30: [16/19 May 1893], GUW #03612.

31: Huish to Whistler, 8 June & 31 July 1894, GUW #01270, #01272; Whistler to F.A.S., 7, [7-23] & 10 August 1894, #01273, #13004, #01274.

'certainly beauties and had been set aside ... for '"Crowned Heads" or Museums! - plates are as whimsical and as difficult to deal with as horses! And when I do take up these two or three remaining ones the Lord knows how they may jib and shy and buck and bolt with me - the trouble they will give I know well - and the amount of coaxing & light handling required before I get them back into anything like training again!' 32
However he did go back to printing impressions and by October 1894 he was sending 'about a dozen & a half - (though of course I will make it out exactly) proofs of the Beggars'. 33

The largest print run is of the final, 17th state. Whistler printed several impressions of the final state on Japanese paper, probably in 1894 (, , ). However, one of these impressions has two tabs, one inscribed with a butterfly and 'imp.' and one with the note 'pp. 11.' (); the note suggests this was not printed by Whistler, the butterfly suggests that it was. This is, to say the least, confusing!

33: To E.G. Brown, [3 October 1894], GUW #03616.

Occasional letters and cheques record Whistler's intermittent engagement with the F.A.S. 34 Whistler's declining health made it increasingly unlikely that he would complete the editions; he died in July 1903. Eventually, Huish arranged that Frederick Goulding (1842-1909) should print the remaining prints, including twenty-two of The Beggars. Goulding completed the edition under the supervision of Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958) by December 1903. She noted 'Nov.26th Fred. Goulding printed "The Beggars". 24 proofs pulled 22. For the Fine Art Society / 1 for himself & one for us.' 35 It was accepted practise for the printer to keep an impression for himself, and presumably the F.A.S. understood that Miss Philip was keeping one as well.

34: i.e. Huish to Whistler, 7 December 1898, GUW #01358; Brown to Whistler, 15 November 1901, #01370.

35: Letterbook Glasgow University Library Whistler LB6/261.

Some impressions of the final state were inscribed in the margin or on the tab 'Pp.' and (rather illegibly) 'RP'. These may be printer's proofs, or notes by Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip on impressions from Goulding's edition ('pp 7' ; 'Pp.11', ; 'pp 15' ). In addition, some of Goulding's impressions were signed and dated, for example, 'F. Goulding Printer / Nov. 27.1903' (, ).
Etching: K1940904
In completing the edition, Goulding also printed on various papers, including both cream Japan (), and cream laid paper (), as in the impression reproduced above, which is signed 'F. Goulding Printer / Nov. 27.1903'. 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.' and added 'But there are no such perfect plates in the world as The Beggars, The Traghetto, the two Rivas and The Bridge.' 36
These last proofs, closely modelled on Whistler's, are fine examples of Goulding's work, dramatic in their use of ink tone to enhance the etched lines. They show that the plates had survived in fine condition, and draw to an end the epic history of Whistler's Beggars.