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Bead Stringers

Impression: Hunterian Art Gallery
Hunterian Art Gallery
Number: 235
Date: 1880
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 229 x 154 mm
Signed: butterfly at left (8-final)
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: 'Second Venice Set', 1886
No. of States: 11
Known impressions: 40
Catalogues: K.198; M.195; W.164
Impressions taken from this plate  (40)


baby, bead-stringer, door, dress, fashion, people, woman, worker.


There is only one title, with few variations, as follows:

'Bead Stringers' (1883, F.A.S.). 1
'Bead-Stringers' (1886, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 2

The original title, 'Bead Stringers' is preferred.

1: London FAS 1883 (cat. no. 5).

2: Wedmore 1886 A[more] (cat. no. 164).


Three women and a baby are seated in and in front of an open doorway. At the right, a young woman sits with a baby on her lap, her back resting against an open door. She wears a chemise and an overdress with a full skirt. Her head is raised in three-quarter view as she looks towards a woman at left. Her face is rounded and her long hair is pinned up in a bun. The child's features are indistinct, but the area around the eyes is quite dark. Behind the woman and child, an older woman sits in the centre of the composition, her right hand raised in the act of stringing beads. A tray for the beads sits on her lap. Her hair is short and she is looking out at the viewer. A woman sits at left outside the door. Three or four different positions of her head can be made out, but the area around the head and an upraised right arm (stringing beads) have been largely burnished out.
The door frame itself is plain, and the panelled door opens inward to what might be a shallow entrance hall. The space within is in deep shadow with a rectangular window with open shutters and curtains above and behind the elderly woman's head. At the top and inside the room there is either a row of windows or a balcony, which frames the top of the composition.
Five rectangular apertures, possibly windows, can be seen above the door - three to the left and two to the right of a larger square central relief panel. The number '37' is rendered inside an incomplete oval above the door frame.
For later changes, see STATES.


A Venetian family, possibly a grandmother, daughter, mother and baby; the woman on the left is threading beads, which was a common Venetian home-based occupation, using beads made in the nearby island of Murano. Bead stringers also appear among the locals sitting in the Via Garibaldi in The Venetian Mast 219, and in pastels done by Whistler in Venice, such as Bead-stringers m0732.


The site has not been identified although Grieve suggests it was in Castello, Venice, where Whistler also etched Old Women 234. 3

3: Grieve 2000[more], p. 132.


This is one of several compositions by Whistler that show either families, or several generations of women at work, which could be described as the 'four ages of women'. For instance, Fruit Stall 225 was also etched in Venice in 1880, and examples in the 1890s include Carpet Menders, Paris 480, Sunflowers, Marché St Germain, Paris 437, Mme Pelletier, Blanchisserie, Paris 481 and Sleeping Child, Ajaccio 488. They show Whistler's interest in the relationship (both physical and emotional) between women and families, between workers and their surroundings, and between youth and age.
Etching: K4200101
In Sunflowers, Marché St Germain, Paris 437, seen above, as in Bead Stringers, the figures are closely constrained by the narrow vertical space of the doorway, a compositional device that had dominated Whistler's work from 1858 on. For instance, in La Marchande de Moutarde 020, reproduced below, the door framed a young girl, with an older women in the room beyond.
Etching: K0220201
As workers, the women in Bead Stringers are among many studies by Whistler of the underpaid and overworked women whose labour underpinned Victorian fashion. It was a subject that he returned to in the 1880s with such etchings as The Seamstress 253. However, in Bead Stringers, the warm Venetian climate, demonstrated by the ability to work out of doors in light clothing, plus the attractiveness of the young women, makes their domestic chores appear easier. Only the haggard face of the old woman, partly concealed in the shadows, implies a darker side to the calm and idyllic nature of the scene.
The compositional device of framing not only the figures, but further rectangular elements seen through the doorway, such as the window in Bead Stringers and further windows, rooms, and canal, in The Doorway 193, for example, emphasises a stage-like, carefully controlled receding space.