A Closer Look, American Art, From Conservation

A Journey into Whistler’s Drawings

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

More than 150 years ago, a twenty-four-year-old James McNeill Whistler set off on a summertime journey. He and his friend Ernest Delannoy—both young, aspiring artists—embarked on a road trip through the French and German countryside. Their goal was to visit Amsterdam and pay homage to the revered Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt van Rijn.

Whistler and Delannoy never made it to Amsterdam; they ran out of money and were forced to return to Paris. But the sojourn gave Whistler an opportunity to observe new scenery and subjects and to develop his artistic style. Throughout the trip, the artist kept a notebook, a visual diary of sorts, which he filled with pencil sketches detailing scenes, people, and places along the way. He produced scores of drawings, some of which he later developed as etchings for his so-called French Set.

This summer, I too traveled in pursuit of art. My journey took me from Colby College in Maine to Washington, DC, for an internship at the Freer|Sackler. When I arrived in June, just a few weeks after graduating with a degree in art history, I began surveying the collection of Whistler’s drawings in media other than watercolor and pastel. The majority of the drawings I looked at were from Whistler’s 1858 trip.

I had extensive background knowledge from my previous experience studying Whistler’s work at the Colby College Museum of Art, a fellow member of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies. This project, however, gave me the new opportunity of handling the works. Emily Jacobson, the museum’s paper conservator, showed me how to handle the art. She then let me work on my own with a headband magnifier and flashlight to conduct what was essentially a forensic examination of each sheet.

Examining Whistler's drawings

Examining Whistler’s drawings

We were trying to determine if Whistler favored particular types of paper for a given medium or if he mixed it up, using, for instance, watercolor blocks for pencil drawings. As I examined each drawing, I paid particular attention to the paper, noting its texture and whether it was “hot press” (run through hot rollers to make it super smooth), “cold press” (run through cold rollers, leaving little bumps and grooves); or “rough” (air-dried, leaving lots of texture). I checked for watermarks; measured the paper’s height, width, and thickness; and inspected the edges for remains of adhesive or fabric. Along the way, I noticed distinct similarities among the sketches, such as the thin, off-white woven paper, the graphite markings on the edges, and the occasional appearance of sewing holes—evidence that papers were ripped or cut out of a sketchbook.

One sketch in particular stood out to me: Promenade à Baden, which depicts a group of fashionable people standing near a portico facing a hill. The drawing is on two pieces of paper glued together side by side. The edges are uneven, and the two pieces do not properly align, making the bottom wider than the top. A vertical fold down the middle of the drawing contains three sewing holes, and like the other sketches from Whistler’s 1858 trip, Promenade à Baden has graphite markings on the edges.

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Even though Whistler probably never meant it to be a finished work, Promenade à Baden fascinated me because it reveals some of the artist’s process. Not only does this sketch provide us with a snapshot of Whistler’s journey, but it also demonstrates how he experimented with cropping and cutting his drawings. The graphite along the edges was probably how he marked where the paper should be trimmed. Additional cut marks near the edges suggest that he considered cropping the drawing even more before ultimately deciding against it. One thin sheet of paper tells us a story of a young, broke artist who, to further his artistic development, drew on anything he could and made the most of each sheet of paper.

Francesca Soriano

Francesca Soriano

Francesca Soriano recently graduated from Colby College in Maine, where she majored in art history and minored in German. While completing her degree, Soriano worked with the Colby College Museum of Art in various roles, including that of curatorial intern, student docent, and co-chair of the student advisory board. Her experience at Colby also included co-curating the exhibition "Aesthetic Harmonies: Whistler in Context" and writing an essay for the exhibition catalogue "Whistler in the World: The Lunder Collection of James McNeill Whistler."
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About Francesca Soriano

Francesca Soriano recently graduated from Colby College in Maine, where she majored in art history and minored in German. While completing her degree, Soriano worked with the Colby College Museum of Art in various roles, including that of curatorial intern, student docent, and co-chair of the student advisory board. Her experience at Colby also included co-curating the exhibition "Aesthetic Harmonies: Whistler in Context" and writing an essay for the exhibition catalogue "Whistler in the World: The Lunder Collection of James McNeill Whistler."