While it's not so difficult to see, in retrospect, how Whistler's daring canvases might have prompted a range of reactions, it is much more baffling to explain the seemingly out-of-proportion attacks that greeted the etchings and lithographs such as the ones that make up the bulk of the Boca exhibition. Consider that they were initially written off as "a dangerous precedent," "little jokes," "contradictions in terms," "merely technical triumphs," "scampering caprice," "too sensational," and having "little to recommend them save the eccentricity of their titles." Whistler himself found the reviews so inconsequential that he compiled excerpts and ridiculed them in print.
And in the short run, at least, he was proved right. The criticism eventually gave way to praise, and as Hunterian curator Peter Black notes in the lavish exhibition catalog, by the end of Whistler's life, "he was regularly referred to as the greatest etcher since Rembrandt." We need only look at the etchings and lithographs themselves to confirm that such an assessment isn't so far-fetched.
Whistler's The Thames and The Palaces: "You know my paintings, my dear, but have you seen my etchings?"
On display through April 2. 561-392-2500.
Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton
Whistler was so comfortable with the printmaking process that he usually bypassed preparatory sketches and etched directly onto prepared copper plates. He was as much at ease with portraits of pensive-looking children who appear as if they could have stepped out of Dickens as he was with waterfront scenes along the Thames and the canals of Venice. Not surprisingly, he wasn't above showing off a bit, as we can see in The Unsafe Tenement, a richly detailed image from a French slum that reflects the influence of Rembrandt and Ruysdael. There's a handful of similarly impressive etchings included here, but the show's emphasis on graphics at the expense of painting actually does the artist an injustice.
And despite Whistler's undeniable technical mastery, his overall cultural contribution seems to have been eclipsed, ultimately, by his flamboyant life and personality. This uneven exhibition from the Hunterian Gallery seeks to reclaim the artist's rightful position in art history and to restore some perspective to his reputation. It's a valiant effort, even if it's only partially successful. His mother, of course, would probably disagree.