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Whistler and the British Etching Revival

Tastes change. The medium of etching had fallen out of favor by the early nineteenth century. One of printmaking’s main functions at the time was to reproduce painted images, and artists and their patrons considered etching to be less detailed and precise for this purpose than engraving.

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), who was born in America but worked in both Paris and London, was one of the principal artists to spark renewed enthusiasm for original etchings in Britain. Joined by his brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden (1818–1910), a print collector and artist, both men shared an interest in the work of French colleagues and of Rembrandt, the great master of etching from an earlier era. In the late 1850s, Whistler and Haden began to use the fluid, expressive etched line to construct innovative compositions tracing everyday subjects, ranging from gritty urban scenes to rural landscapes.

Etching clubs and societies were a significant way for artists to promote the medium and often to publish and sell their work. Whistler and Haden joined such associations in 1859-60, and the groups’ activities, combined with Whistler’s international reputation, enhanced the popularity of etching in Britain and inspired younger artists to take up the medium. This exhibition, drawn from Philbrook’s permanent collection, presents a selection of prints by Whistler and Haden, along with works by several artists of the next generation. Highlighting the wide range of subjects and visual effects captured by the etcher’s needle, the exhibition explores the innovative practices that account for the medium’s resurgence in the mid-nineteenth century, and for its continued appeal in the following years.

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