RA Magazine Autumn 2007
Issue Number: 96
A show of historical Whistler engravings offers museum quality work, writes Peter Murray
In 1878 James McNeill Whistler, accused by John Ruskin of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’, sued the writer for libel. Although the court found in Whistler’s favour, the damages awarded were a derisory farthing, and the impoverished Whistler turned to a loyal supporter, The Fine Art Society, for assistance.
The Society, the first commercial gallery in London to hold solo shows of living artists, commissioned Whistler to travel to Venice to create a portfolio of etchings of that city. It was an ironic destination, considering how much Ruskin had done to popularise Venice in British cultural circles. However, the resulting exhibition of etchings, ‘Arrangement in White and Yellow’, shown at the Fine Art Society in 1883, helped to save the artist from bankruptcy.
The installation of the show, in The Fine Art Society galleries in New Bond Street, with walls covered in white felt and etchings framed in white, set a trend in design that was decades ahead of its time.
Whistler exhibited at the Society four times during his lifetime, so this selling show of his etchings, ‘The Embroidered Curtain’ – named after one of the masterpieces from his Amsterdam Series of 1889, several versions of which are on display – makes cultural connections going back more than a century.
James McNeill Whistler: The Embroidered Curtain, The Fine Art Society, London (020 7491 9454; www.faslondon.com), 18 Oct–8 Nov
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