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Gretchen at Heidelberg

Impression: Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Number: 21
Date: 1858
Medium: etching
Size: 205 x 156 mm
Signed: 'Whistler' at upper left
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: no
No. of States: 1
Known impressions: 4
Catalogues: K.20; M.20; T.33; W.12
Impressions taken from this plate  (4)


clothing, dress, fashion, interior, sewing, spinning, woman seated, worker.


The title evolved gradually, as follows:

'Gretchen / Heidelberg' (1870s, Whistler). 2
'Gretchen – Heidelberg' (1881, Union League Club). 3
Gretchen at Heidelberg' (1886, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 4
'Gretchen - at Heidelberg' (1890/1892, Beatrice Whistler (1857-1896)). 5
'Gretchen’ (1909, Howard Mansfield (1849-1938)). 6
'Gretchen at Heidelberg' (1910, Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932)). 7

Whistler wrote both 'Gretchen' and 'Heidelberg' on an impression of this etching but did not actually call it 'Gretchen at Heidelberg', which was a title first introduced by Wedmore and adopted by Kennedy. Mansfield clearly had doubts about the meaning of 'Heidelberg' (was it an etching made there or a girl from Heidelberg, or a subject associated with Heidelberg?) and called it merely 'Gretchen'. Nevertheless the association was made by Whistler, and 'Gretchen at Heidelberg' has been generally accepted.

2: Written on .

3: New York 1881 (cat. no. 17).

4: Wedmore 1886 A[more] (cat. no. 12).

5: List, GUW #12715.

6: Mansfield 1909[more] (cat. no. 20).

7: Kennedy 1910[more] (cat. no. 20).


A young woman is sitting at a little wall-mounted work-table under a window to the right, with her feet resting on a wooden foot-stool. She has carefully arranged hair, pulled back from a central parting, and a plump, pretty face. Her narrow waist is emphasized by a neat dress decorated with bows and stripes, with a close fitting bodice and full skirt, protected by an ample apron.
She is leaning with her left arm on the window frame, and looking pensively at the viewer. She has been sewing or spinning, for there is a needle and a ball of wool on the table. Mansfield wrote that Gretchen was holding ‘a frame, apparently of needlework’. 8 However, the object in her right hand looks more like a stick, possibly a forked stick, and may be a spindle for spinning wool.

8: Mansfield 1909[more] (cat. no. 20).

Strong sunlight comes from an open window behind her, to the right. The window is in the corner of the room, and opens fully against the wall behind her, reflecting the back of her head. On a shelf to the left is a large beer mug, and a tall jug or vase is just visible, sitting in the sun on the window sill to the right.


Gretchen (fl. 1830-1858); her identity has not been established beyond doubt.
Pennell and Lochnan thought the woman was 'Gretchen Schmidt', daughter of the artist's landlord at Cologne during Whistler's tour of the Rhineland in 1858 (the beer mugs on the shelf might suggest a setting of a pub or inn). 9

9: Pennell 1908[more], vol. 1, pp. 62-63; Lochnan 1984[more], p. 43.

However, Whistler implied by his title that the 'Gretchen' of the etching was associated with Heidelberg (which he certainly visited in 1858) and not Cologne. Thus she is not 'Gretchen Schmidt' of Cologne, but perhaps a Gretchen from Heidelberg, and unfortunately the name is too common to be traced further.
Curry suggested that a pencil study of a girl knitting, on the verso of a drawing of Baden-Baden, might represent Gretchen. 10 The hairstyle is undoubtedly similar but this probably arises from the current fashion for sleekly coiled plaits.

10: Curry 1984[more], pp. 227, 300. (r.: Gambling salon at Baden-Baden; v.: Girl knitting, street scene, cloaked figure m0245)


Whistler, having spent time gambling in Baden-Baden, continued on to Heidelberg, the famous University town on the river Neckar. His sketchbooks contain several studies of Heidelberg, although none are related to this etching (see La Courtisane des Étudiants, Heidelberg m0249 and Fontain à Heidelberg m0250). Curry's suggestion, above, adds Baden-Baden to Cologne and Heidelberg as the venue for the etching. 11

11: Ibid.


It is possible that it is not exactly a portrait but a composite figure. It could have been derived from a drawing done on the Rhine trip (possibly in Heidelberg) but worked up later in Paris. This procedure was followed with other etchings, such as La Marchande de Moutarde 020, which is derived from two pencil sketches done in Cologne.
Although the girl could be a 'Gretchen' met by Whistler on the Rhineland etching tour, it is possible that the etching shows another 'Gretchen' entirely, the Gretchen seduced by Faust, as described by Johann Wolfgang van Goethe in his tragic play Faust: der Tragödie. The first part of this was published in 1808, revised in 1828-29, and the second was completed (and published posthumously) in 1832.
There is a passage in Faust in which Gretchen is described sitting spinning by a window, waiting in vain for her lover. Gretchen is short for Margaret (Goethe used both forms of the name). The play was translated and was very popular. It formed the basis for Gounod's opera Faust, which opened at the Théâtre-Lyrique, Paris, on 19 March 1859. Goethe was associated with Heidelberg, and it may be this association that suggested the title of Whistler's etching.
The girl could be a 'Gretchen' met by Whistler on the etching tour, or etched back in Paris. The date coinciding with the opera production in 1859 may be mere coincidence. However, it could be that the popular opera inspired both the title and subject of the etching.
It is known that Whistler was fascinated by the Faust story, and in later years drew a number of studies of Hollingshead's Little Dr Faust at the Gaiety Theatre. 12

It is not the only etching of this period to be associated with the stage, for Whistler's striking contemporary portrait, Finette 061, shows Josephine Durwend alias Finette (fl. 1859-1867). It is known that photographs of Finette were popular in the print shops of Paris and London, and that Whistler owned such photographs, so perhaps his etchings were intended to compete with this market, by producing an artistic image of a popular figure.

12: r.: Masked girl wearing a head-dress skipping; v.: Dancer m0663; Souvenir of the Gaiety m0664.

On the other hand, there was also a solid tradition, among Whistler's precursors and contemporaries, of showing women in domestic activities such as sewing or spinning. Examples include La Couseuse by Jean Francois Millet (1814-1874), dating from the early 1850s, which shows a peasant woman sewing by a many-paned window. 13

13: Etching, Delteil 9.II, British Museum 1865,1209.797; see (accessed 2009).