In late fall of 1879, after financially ruining himself in a lawsuit against the critic John Ruskin, Whistler appears in Venice. He has brought with him some copper etching plates, some sheets of brown paper for pastels and a minimum of supplies. He traveled on a small advance from the Society of Fine Arts in London. Their commission was small, for a few etchings and drawings. They expected him back in London in a couple of months. But, this was Whistler. He would scrounge, borrow from chamber maids, borrow from shop keepers and artists . He would stay over a year. The Fine Arts Society would be howling for their commission. He ignored them all to rediscover and invent himself in Venice with mostly pastels, but with etchings and a few oils as well. Whistler’s minimalist tack on painting depended upon the viewer looking into the vague and vaporous suggestions of his paint to discover space, mood, and motion. He was not a topographer. He was a poet of the soft light of twilight, dusk and predawn.
Whistler used the brown paper of his chalk pastels as Constable used a burnt Siena underpainting, as a foil to lighter complementary colors placed on top. The brown served as a unifier. The light scratches of pastel or the vague smears of oil paint laid on top of the brown evoked a sense of mysterious space, a space to be conjured, manufactured in mind of the viewer. Consider example 1. which Whistler called a “Nocturne” of a view of San Giorgio. We know he would sit and contemplate the vista then turn his back on it to see what effects he might discover in pastel, watercolor or an oil sketch. He truly followed the paint. Even his title let you know he was pursuing an effect, an artistic effect, not a piece of topography. He didn’t bother to draw his Venetian etchings in reverse by looking at a mirror (as others did) so that they would be properly reversed in their printing on the press because, information about the place was not his motivation. Anyone who thought otherwise he called a “damned fool”. This Nocturne example suggests with a pale blue chalk, the complement of the brown paper. The reference to the gondolas is made through sketchy suggestion as well. The gondolas are lined up like the regular diagonal recessional lines in a perspective diagram of the 15th century. His design is subtle, simple, and strong.
In example 2, a Little Canal, (this may be a honorific to Canaletto whose name translates to “Little Canal”)Whistler again relies on the under color of the paper to provide atmospheric unity, with just few rubbings and linear gestures he evokes a setting, a mood. He again relies on a vortex of linear perspective to guide the viewer simply into the moody space. In example 3, an interior, Whistler constructs the sparest and simplest rectangular linear perspective space then, dissolves some of the edges, the recessional lines and allows us to move quietly to the soft light emanating from the window in deepest space. This hallway was probably in the Ca Rezzonico, the location of his and other artists’ ( months later, John Singer Sargent’s ) studio. I have visited and discovered this location myself. These drawings are small, pensive, evocative, and because of their size easily created while Whistler wandered about his Venetian neighborhoods.
Let’s consider Whistler’s paintings. They are even more emotional tone pieces than the pastels. Again, Whistler uses the dark brown underpainting which he paints thinly over with complementary colors. In example 4. (an oil, Nocturne in Blue and Silver) Whistler uses a large brush, a house painter’s brush he named “Mathew” to cover the surface with what he called one of his sauces, a semi translucent color which allowed the brown undertone to affect the applied surface color. The effect stimulates a sensation of space, atmosphere, and time of day….the very end or earliest beginning of day. Complementary notes of yellowish light can be scattered to suggest a structure or location of a form. It’s the arrangement of the these lights and a few more definite ( though still vague) darks that create an organizing design. The horizontal bands are strategically spaced ( non symmetrically) to encourage a feeling of deep ambiguous space.
In appropriating some of the ideas of Turner, I turned to a softer and paler palette with indistinctness as a valued tool for evoking space and mood. In my first example ( example 5), I have an early morning misty landscape. The gray is created with white, Blue and Quinacridone Fuchsia. The complementary yellow/oranges are lightened into tints with white by degree. The design follows the light cascading from the top of the painting to the bottom where it is caught and suspended by forward bowing shape.
My next examples proceed step by step. I begin with a simple and graphic serpentine design, one familiar to and used by Whistler. Like Whistler, I also used a toned substrate, brushed gold anodized aluminum. I begin with much stronger color than Whistler but, proceed to mute that color to create a softer and less fractured mood, although I did enjoy the moment of more intense complementary color contrast. Example 6. is the beginning. Example 7 is the muted later state.
In conclusion, I am back to painting a city. This time is NYC instead of Whistler’s Venice. But, my experience of NYC in the soft wet gray weather was particularly romantic. I recall how the tops of buildings and the distance dissolve in a Whistler like haze. I also use Whistler’s simple single point perspective design here in this last example 8. I will be taking a group of a dozen interested artists to Venice with me the last week in June. I promise to show you where and how Whistler, Sargent and Turner painted in Venice. If you would like to come with me then call the Silvermine School of Art at 203 966 6668.