In August 1887, James Abbott McNeill Whistler travelled to Belgium with his brother, Dr. William Whistler, and his sister-in-law. He brought with him prepared etching plates and with these made nineteen etchings, thirteen of them in Brussels in September. (1) He made a number of etchings in the poorer quarter of Les Marolles in the old town of Brussels, concentrating on the shop fronts and street scenes as he had previously in Chelsea. (2) However, he was also particularly attracted by Brussels’ town square, the Grande Place, and its town hall and seventeenth-century guild houses. In a letter dated September 14-18, 1887, Whistler wrote to Thomas Waldo Story in London:
"Where am I now? – well of all places – in Brussels! – I wish enough you were here with me – The place is simply lovely – and I only wonder how it is that I should never have discovered it before! – But the droll thing is that the people themselves – the painter fellows and the rest of them have no idea of it themselves – and I will have to invent their town for them as I did the Thames for the Londoners! –
"The work that I am doing is, I believe, far away beyond all that I have done before – and I shall be awfully disappointed if you dont think that what I am about is not even newer, and more amazing than the Naval Review –" (3)
House of the Swan, Brussels depicts the former guild hall of the butchers, built with the other guild houses around the main town square. Like most of the buildings of the Grande Place, the House of the Swan had been restored to a late Baroque design after the French destruction of Brussels in August of 1695. In his etching, Whistler has concentrated only on the open door with its overdoor sculptural embellishment of a swan—by which the house was identified and from which its name derived—and the parapet railing and window of the main floor above. He has cropped his rendering of the building at the top and sides, and, indeed, the building seems to dissolve as it approaches the plate mark. People standing in the doorway and in the street are given only the sketchiest treatment, and the woman to the left seems to dissolve along with the architecture. With both an economy of size—the print measures only 2 1/2 by 7 inches—and the economy of means of short, quickly executed delicate lines, Whistler has captured the impression of the Baroque building’s complicated ornateness and picturesque detail and contrasted the highlights of the façade with the shadows in the windows and open doorways. He apparently etched the plate with little stopping-out—the covering over of unwanted etched areas—and in biting the plate with acid produced a sharpness that in the print brings out the draftsmanship of the etching. (4)
This impression is of the only known state. Whistler trimmed the print to the plate mark, leaving the signature tab at the bottom. An account of “sales to date” from the H. Wunderlich and Co. gallery in New York to James McNeill Whistler in London, dated March 24, 1899, lists “1 Etching, House of the Swan. Brussels. £6.” (5)
(1) These are known as the “Belgian set” of 1887, although they were never issued as a set. Edward G. Kennedy, The Etched Work of Whistler (San Francisco, 1978), nos. 349-367.
(2) Octave Maus, “Whistler in Belgium,” The International Studio, An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art vol. 23, no. 89 (July, 1904), 11. See also Joy Newton, “Whistler and La Société des Vingt,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 143, no. 1181 (August, 2001), 480-488, and “Whistler à Bruxelles,” L’Art moderne (September 25, 1887), 310.
(3) Glasgow University Library, MS Whistler S254.
(4) The copper etching plate for this print, measuring 17.9 cm x 6.6 cm, is in the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, GLAHA 50457.
(5) Glasgow University Library, MS Whistler W1293.
“Exhibition of Whistlers; Important Display of Lithographs and Etchings at the Wunderlich Gallery,” The New York Times (October 28, 1903), 8.
Kennedy, Edward G. The Etched Work of Whistler. San Francisco: A. Wofsey Fine Arts, 1978, no. 363.
Carder, James. American Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 42-45, no. 4.
[Possibly] Grolier Club, New York, New York, Etchings and Dry-Points by James McNeill Whistler, April 15-May 7, 1904, no. 389.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., during the Convention of the American Federation of Art, May 1939.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., American Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Selections from the House Collection, October 26, 2010-February 13, 2011, no. 4.
Purchased from H. Wunderlich & Co., New York, New York, by Cora Barnes, New York, New York, October 1903, and bequeathed to Robert Woods Bliss, September 29, 1911.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., until January 17, 1969.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.