James McNeill Whistler
Campanile at Lido, 1879
Frost & Reed, London, 1918.
Anon Sale; Sotheby’s, London, June 25, 1980, lot 178 (titled A Venetian Church).
Private Collection, MI, acquired from the above sale.
‘Mr. Whistler’s Pastels’, in Athenaeum, London, no. 2780, 5 Feb. 1881, p. 206.
H. Quilter, ‘Mr. Whistler’s Venice Pastels’, in The Times, London, 9 Feb. 1881, p. 4.
E.W. Godwin, ‘Notes on Current Events’, in British Architect, 4 Feb. 1881, pp. 59-64.
F.C. Burnand, ‘Whistler’s Wenice; or, Pastels by Pastelthwaite’, in Punch, London, vol. 80, 12 Feb. 1881, p. 69
T.R. Way, Memories of James McNeill Whistler, the Artist, London, 1912, pp. 52-53 (Way’s thumbnail sketch illus. in lithograph).
M.F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler: Drawings, Pastels, and Watercolours – A catalogue raisonné, New Haven, CT, 1995, p. 27 (Thomas Way, Jr.’s lithograph illus.), 269-71, no. 737 (illus.)
A. Grieve, Whistler’s Venice, New Haven, CT, 2000, pp. 178-80 (illus.)
M.F. MacDonald, Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice, Berkeley, CA, 2001, pp. 25, 153.
London, London Fine Arts Society, Venice Pastels, opened 29 Jan. 1881, no. 27 (as Campanile at Lido).
James Abbott McNeill Whistler received a commission in September 1879 from the Fine Arts Society (FAS), a London gallery, to produce a set of twelve etchings of the city of Venice. This was a welcome opportunity at a time of financial distress for the artist, enabling him to replenish his depleted resources.1 He signed an agreement with the gallery on September 9 and departed from London on 18 September with his mistress Maud Franklin, leaving on the 8 p.m. train. 2 The two stopped in Paris, where Maud remained with friends while Whistler continued on to Venice two days later, arriving on the 20th of the month.3 Where he stayed initially is unknown. The artist Ross Turner described visiting him in a small house, with a garden, near the Frari, but when Maud joined him in Venice on 20 October, he was residing in cheap accommodations on the Rio de S. Barnaba in the Dorsoduro sestiere (quarter).4 The artist Ralph Curtis believed that Whistler also rented a studio in the nearby Palazzo Rezzonico on the Grand Canal, an enormous building that was then run-down.
Whistler’s surviving letters from Venice reveal that he used the Café Florian on the Piazza San Marco as his postal address.6 Surveying Whistler’s letters, the art historian Alastair Grieve writes that, despite a few lyrical descriptions, Whistler provided ‘no hint of his extraordinary exploration of the hidden parts of the city in pursuit of original subjects’. However, perceiving that his interpretation of Venice was original, Whistler wrote to Marcus Huish, the managing director of the Fine Arts Society: ‘Now I have learned to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived.’7
Initially, Whistler planned to reside in Venice for three months, but he stayed for fourteen, ending his trip with his return to London in November 1880. According to Thomas Robert Way, who would print Whistler’s etchings, Whistler left London armed with ‘a box of new copperplates and etching materials . . . and also a supply of special brown paper which he had been fortunate enough to find and upon which were drawn the greater part of the pictures shown in the Venice pastels.’8 Grieve conjectures that if Way had been correct, it would have meant that when Whistler arrived in Venice, he was planning to create pastels, although possibly at first just as studies for etchings. However, when the weather became cold, Whistler found pastel to be the best medium for depicting the city.
Whistler created his first pastels in the late 1860s. At first, he used the medium to make studies for paintings. As he continued to explore it, he used it for quick sketches of women. It was in Venice that he created his first pastel landscapes, responding to the city as he traveled through it with a medium that offered fresh colour and that did not require a brush, needle, or solvent. It also afforded the spontaneity of sketching on-the-spot, achieving a wide variety of effects. As noted by the art historian Robert Getscher: ‘Whistler’s pastels are among the finest works he ever produced . . . [His pastels], so unlike those of other masters, captured the imagination of the critics and public alike, and changed Whistler’s position from one of notoriety to one of fame.’
In his Venetian pastels and etchings alike, Whistler worked on a small scale, as he needed to carry his materials with him during jaunts that often lasted all day. He was extremely particular about his papers. He used papers with toned grounds, mostly in varying shades of brown, and he favored those that had a ‘tooth’. This consisted of an irregular grain and fibers that could be rubbed to create contrasting textures and catch hold of the slightest touch of colour. He found cheap brown wrapping paper to work well for this purpose.
According to writings on Whistler in Venice, the artist shifted his focus from etchings to pastels when the cold weather arrived, and the winter of 1879–80 was one of the coldest that had been experienced in the city in many years. When he had been sick for two months in January 1880, he stated in the aforementioned letter to Huish that he was ‘frozen’ and had been for months, noting that he could not hold a ‘needle with numbed fingers, and beautiful work cannot be finished in bodily agony’. Nonetheless, it is clear that Whistler began pastels soon after his arrival, as he stated to Huish that he planned on his return to London to ‘bring fifty or sixty if not more pastels totaly [sic] new and of a brilliancy very different from the customary watercolor’.
The dating of the approximately 100 Venetian pastels Whistler created is difficult to determine precisely. Seasonal indications are one means by which they have been dated. In some, titles and imagery indicate that they were rendered in the winter.11 Others are sunlit views that can be associated with the spring and summer of 1880. In the catalogue raisonné, the works are evenly divided between those indicated as ‘drawn 1879/80’ and those either ‘drawn in 1880’ or ‘possiblydrawn in 1880’. Only a few are believed to have been created in 1879, including the present work, Campanile at Lido.
12 In a 2010 essay, Dr. Erma Hermens states that Whistler’s work can be divided into two groups: ‘The first are the detailed drawing of buildings, small canals with bridge and gondolas, facades with shutters, washing etc., beautifully depicted in a black chalk line drawing with touches of colour added to create light, tone and nuance….The other group are the sunsets, where the black chalk drawing, if used at all, plays a minor role. These are pure explorations of colour and atmosphere.’13
Campanile at Lido belongs to the first group, and its dating can also be based on the evidence that in 1879, Whistler visited the Lido, the seven-mile barrier island in the Venetian Lagoon that shelters the city from the sea. It was to the Lido that Whistler traveled with Maud three days after her arrival in Venice. She wrote on 23 October to the Parisian art dealer George Aloysius Lucas: ‘We are just off to the Lido. Oh isn’t this a lovely place and such a lovely day too.’14 The island had been the destination of poets and writers in the late 18th and early 19th Century, when it was still wild. During his five years in the city (1816–21), Lord Byron rode horses on the Lido and was visited there by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote a poem in 1824 in which he described riding on the Lido along the ‘solitary places’ of the ‘barren’ island. By the time Whistler visited, the island had become a tourist haven. In 1873, waterbuses began travelling between San Zaccaria (near St. Mark’s Square) and a stop near the Church of Santa Maria Elisabetta, situated on the Lagoon side at the north end of the island and a short walk to the small square behind the church where the artist drew this pastel.
On the island, the area around the church was the most developed at the time Whistler visited, consisting of restaurants, resorts, and bathing beaches. However, no sign of the vacation industry is present in his image, which he rendered close to the steamer stop at the junction of what is now Via Isola di Cerigo and Gran Vitale Maria Elisabetta – a photograph of his site is included in Alastair Grieve’s Whistler’s Venice (2000)15 (fig. 1). The pastel exemplifies Whistler’s interest in finding artistic appeal in places that others would pass by. In it, he depicted a view looking north to the back side of the modest church from the Via Isola di Cerigo. The church’s campanile is at its right side of the composition, bracketed by other buildings, both close and more distant, with shrubs and trees below them.
In Campanile at Lido, Whistler used a sheet on which he had a false start. He began the work as a vertical scene, which is apparent in the horizontal lines covered over in the sky. Perhaps he had initially planned to depict the campanile in this format, but then decided that such a composition would be too obvious and static. Thus, turning the work on its side, he set a challenge for himself of integrating a vertical motif into a horizontal design. He appears to have explored this by drawing buildings, including the back side of the church (the building whose gable faces the viewer) with sketchy lines in charcoal to establish the arrangement. However, when he applied pastel, he did not feel obligated to conform to his original conception, developing the three-dimensional building forms with white crayon for light-reflective surfaces. In the work, he brought the structures together into a pyramidal shape that serves as a base for the campanile. In this way, he demonstrated that his considerations were artistic rather than reportorial. Setting the campanile near the work’s right edge rather than at its centre, he made the arrangement dynamic, again demonstrating aesthetic calculation. That there are several pinholes in the work suggest that Whistler pinned the work to his drawing board, perhaps to make adjustments over time. Nonetheless, his direct observation of the scene is apparent in the shadows that obscure forms, especially in the foreground where he used a minimum of line and shading for shrubs and trees. He rendered the shapes of laundry hanging on a line, but left out the line itself. He conveyed depth by a few horizontal strokes in the foreground and by offsetting the buildings against a sky rendered by blue crayons turned on their side and rubbed against the grainy surface of the support.
Whistler depicted two other images of the Lido during his stay in Venice: Blue and Silver – The Islands, Venice and a related etching, in reverse, The Little Venice. The view was taken from about 100 yards from the church, looking northwest toward Venice. Among the works Whistler is believed to have rendered in 1880, the images were probably based on a later trip to the island.
Among Whistler’s pastels, the image closest to Campanile at Lido is The Cemetery. It was also rendered early in Whistler’s stay in Venice, most likely in October 1879, when he was widely exploring the main island and travelling by boat to the other islands in the Lagoon. The Cemetery was probably created on a daytrip on the city’s northern shore, looking north to the Isola di San Michele, home to a cemetery established in 1807.
In both Campanile at Lido and The Cemetery, Whistler used brown papers with a reddish tone, over which he applied a scumbled pastel technique and allowed the paper’s colour to be visible throughout his scenes and thus to unify them aesthetically. In both, he used pencil for a large version of the butterfly device that served as his signature. In addition, he gave the two works numbers: he inscribed The Cemetery ‘No. 2’, and Campanile at Lido ‘No. 3’. These are the only extant Venetian works that are so numbered. It seems likely that once Whistler decided to create pastels as works of art in their own right, he planned to number them, but then gave up doing so when his pastels overtook his work in etching. If this is the case, Campanile at Lido is likely to be the third pastel Whistler rendered on his Venetian sojourn. The first is either not recorded or no longer exists.
When the Fine Art Society in London proposed an exhibition of Whistler’s Venetian pastels to be held in the year following his return, the artist enthusiastically agreed and selected fifty-three works from the approximately 100 pastels he had created on his sojourn. Campanile at Lido was among them and included as no. 27 in the exhibition. The show was accompanied by a modest catalogue with brown-paper covers, and the works were displayed mostly on the line against a fabric background that did not distract from their gilt frames, ordered by Whistler from the FineArts Society when he was still in Venice. He reported to his sister-in-law Nellie that Huish had been preparing ‘fifty frames! For the pastels, which are, and remain even in my present depression, lovely! Just think, fifty – complete beauties.’
He wrote to his ten-year-old son, Charles, on May 2, 1880: ‘I have worked very hard, and bring back with me a perfect gallery of beautiful pastel drawings . . . which I fancy will represent nearly a thousand pounds!’ The show opened on 29 January 1881, and remained on view at least through the end of the following month. Instead of fifty works, fifty-two ended up being included in the show. Based on Margaret F. MacDonald’s 1995 catalogue raisonné of Whistler’s works on paper, of the works included, six are unlocated, fourteen (including Campanile at Lido) are in private collections, and thirty-two belong to public collections (all except two of which are museums).
The exhibition was widely praised in its many reviews. The Daily News critic commented that Whistler had found himself, hitting ‘on the right mode of expressing what genius he may have in him’. The reviewer continued: ‘Mr. Whistler has been swift without being slovenly. [His pastels] are rapid sketches of light, of colour, and of aerial distances and architectural effects.’ The critic for the World noted that ‘coloured crayons’ had ‘not hitherto been judged a very desirable means of artistic expression and record, but in Whistler’s hands they become invested with special value.’21 The Pall Mall Gazette commented: ‘Venice has worked a charm upon Mr. Whistler, and under its influence he has been content to adopt a manner of interpretation that leaves to each individual scene its own special characteristics of form and colour.’
Campanile at Lido was mentioned in several of the reviews. The writer for the Athenaeum discussed seven works in the exhibition, among them Campanile at Lido, which was described as ‘a capital rendering of a broad effect with massive shadows.’23 In The Times, Henry Quilter commended Whistler for using pastel to bring out ‘the picturesque forms and colours which Venice, in all her varied beauties, lavished before the artist’s eye’. Campanile at Lido was among the five works mentioned by Quilter, who compared it favorably to The Storm – Sunset (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA). He remarked: ‘The campanile at Lido , with the slender tower telling strongly against the sky, ever so slightly brushed over with a mere bloom of blue, forms an exceedingly pleasing sketch. The attempt at a stormy sunset is not so happy as in those which are simply tinted.’
In an article in British Architect Godwin referenced the drawing along with Campanile, Santa Margherita (Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA), as ‘The Campaniles (27 and 2)’ that are ‘instances of a somewhat looser handling.’ Campanile at Lido was also one of eighteen works from the show parodied in an article in Punch, London’s leading satirical newspaper, by Francis Cowley Burnand, one of its main critics. The article was published with a humorous title of ‘Whistler’s Wenice, Or, Pastels by Pastelthwaite.’ Burnand called Whistler the ‘artful Doger of Venice’, noting that he exhibited his pastels ‘in the most generous and self-effacing way to the public generally’, while asking: ‘Does he want to discourage his brother artists from going to Venice?’ Burnand described Campanile at Lido as: ‘Suggestion for a camp in ile – this isn’t in ile. Note – it’s out in the desolate country, a truly-rural-Lido sort of place.’
At the exhibition, Thomas Way, Jr., the son of Whistler’s London printer, drew thumbnail sketches of the pastels in his copy of the show’s catalogue. In 1912, he reproduced his drawings as lithographs in his book, Memories of James McNeill Whistler, including an image of Campanile at Lido.Even before Whistler returned to London, he felt sure that his pastels would be commercially successful. He wrote to Nellie in March 1880, noting that his pastels would be ‘irresistable [sic] to buyers’. He commented that his ‘painter-fellows in Venice’ who had seen these works had been ‘quite startled at their brilliancy’. The accuracy of Whistler’s prediction is unclear, as little information exists as to the sale of works from the show. Few of their original owners are identified. This is the case for Campanile at Lido, whose early history is unknown. In 1980, the work was sold at Sotheby’s in London as A Venetian Church, its past forgotten. With its title, location, and context restored, the work fills an important role in Whistler’s pastel oeuvre and in his images of a place he described in a letter to his close friend, Matthew Robinson Elden, as one in which ‘one might pass a lifetime’. He remarked to Elden that the works he was bringing back were not ‘merely the “Views of Venice” or the “Streets of Venice”, or the “Canals of Venice” such as you have seen brought back by the foolish sketcher – but great pictures that stare you in the face – complete arrangements and harmonies in color & form that are ready and waiting for the one who can perceive.’29 A work of originality, in which Whistler left evidence of his process and his unique aesthetically attuned way of seeing, Campanile at Lido is among them.