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Sketches on the Coast Survey Plate

Impression: Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Number: 1
Date: 1854
Medium: etching
Size: 149 x 253 mm
Signed: 'J.W.' at upper left
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: no
No. of States: 1
Known impressions: 28
Catalogues: K.1; M.1; T.-
Impressions taken from this plate  (28)


boy, coast, man, head, illustration, island, landscape, sea, woman, vignette.


There are small variations in title, as follows:

'The Coast Survey Sketches' (1892, Sotheby's). 2
'Coast Survey, No. 1' (1908, Pennell). 3
'Sketches on the Coast Survey Plate' (1909, Howard Mansfield (1849-1938)). 4

Thus all the published titles refer to the place where this was etched, rather than the precise subject. The title used by Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936) and Joseph Pennell (1860-1926) is based on the knowledge that, having tried out various sketches on a first plate, Whistler worked on a second etching at the Coast Survey, Anacapa Island 002. However, the title used by Mansfield, 'Sketches on the Coast Survey Plate', is perfectly clear, and generally accepted.

2: Sotheby's, 3 March 1892, lot 44.

3: Pennell 1908[more], I, pp. 44-45.

4: Mansfield 1909[more] (cat. no. 1).


In the centre is a view of a rocky coastline, with lighthouses at the far left and right above high cliffs, and a village in a sheltered bay just to left of centre. Parallel to this, and above it, there is a study of a smaller stretch of rocky coast, with a lighthouse on the heights to the right, and also out in the bay to the left. Both views are lit from the left, and are reflected in still waters.
At lower left is a plan of the central coastline including the village bay, with gradients marked.
At upper right is the head of a bearded, hooded man; and at upper left are several more sketches. Reading from left to right there is a head in profile; the top half of a man smoking a long-stemmed pipe; the head of a young man shaded by his wide brimmed hat; an oval study of a little boy and an old lady; and the head of a soldier with peaked cap and bushy moustache.
According to the Pennells, who discussed his work at the Coast Survey with the artist:
'Whistler was unable to confine himself to the Government requirements ... on the upper part of the plate, several figures, obviously reminiscent of prints and drawings he had seen, are sketched: an old peasant woman, a man in a tall Italian hat, another in a Sicilian bonnet, a mother and child in an oval, a battered French soldier, a bearded monk in an elaborate cowl.' 5


According to C. H. Deetz of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, the upper image represented 'Passing of Nix's Mate - South Channel to Boston Harbor' and the lower image, 'View for clearing Harding Ledge - Southeastern approach to Boston Harbor', in the vicinity of Minot's light. The Coast and Geodetic Survey Chart No. 337 of Boston Harbor was presented to the Freer Gallery of Art by the Survey on 23 December 1937. 6

6: Letter from C. H. Deetz, October 1930; folder sheet for , FGA. Whistler's three images reproduced on one sheet, Fig. 30, Freer Gallery of Art, FGA 97.17.


John Ross Key (1837-1920), a colleague of Whistler's in Washington, remembered:
'At intervals, while doing the topographical view, he paused to sketch on the upper part of the plate, the vignette of "Mrs. Partington" and "Ike," a soldier's head, a suggestion of a portrait of himself as a Spanish hidalgo, and other bits, which are the charm of the work.' 7
The vignette of 'Mrs Partington' and her nephew 'Ike' illustrates a humorous story by Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber, the Life and Sayings of Mrs Partington, published in 1854. It illustrates a specific episode, when the old lady looks at a miniature portrait of herself:
'"WHAT artfulness!" said Mrs Partington, as she held her miniature in her hand, done in the highest style of the daguerrean art. The features were radiant with benevolence; the cap, close-fitted about her venerable face, bore upon it the faded black ribbon, the memento of ancient woe; the close-folded kerchief about her neck was pinned with mathematical exactness, while from beneath the cap border struggled a dark gray lock of hair, ... The picture was like her, and admiration marked every line of her countenance as she spoke.' 8
Whistler's illustration, itself an oval, depicts Mrs Partington showing Ike a daguerrotype in an oval frame. It was a popular subject; it appeared some years later, for instance, in a series of 'Stereoview' (stereographic) photographs of 'American Groups', as reproduced below.
Etching: c_K001_01
Private Collection.
Photograph©Whistler Etchings Project.
None of the other sketches in Whistler's etching can be identified with certainty. The head and figure studies are reminiscent of pen drawings done by Whistler towards the end of his years at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. For instance, the hooded head (which Key describes as Whistler in the guise of a Spanish hidalgo) resembles Head of a man in a turban and Head of a man in a cloak. 9 The head of a man with the brim of his hat shading his face is similar to several sketches including A man seated on a bench and Man smoking. 10 The soldier's head (described by Pennell as a French soldier) is related to Whistler's West Point sketches of cadets and soldiers in uniform, including Jem Bugs. 11

9: Head of a man in a turban m0087, Head of a man in a cloak (Pelouze's Album, p. 79) m0089.

10: r.: A man seated on a bench; v.: Diagonal grid m0187, Man smoking m0188.

11: r.: Jem Bugs; v.: female figure m0111.