James Abbott McNeill Whistler moved from Paris to the Chelsea neighborhood of London in 1859 after his painting, At The Piano, (1) was rejected at the Paris Salon of that year. In the 1880s, before leaving London again for Paris in 1892, Whistler etched a number of street scenes in Chelsea in which he developed what is known as his late etching style. Typical of this style was the small scale of the prints, made from small plates that Whistler carried around with him and on which he sketched as if he were drawing on a sketchbook page. (2) Also typical is the economy of etched lines, which often suggest form without completely describing it, allowing the image to seemingly disappear at the edges. Without creating true chiaroscuro modeling, Whistler played with the effects of light and shadow in these images by juxtaposing the deep blacks of massed lines with un-etched white areas, evoking a three-dimensional reality without actually truly depicting it. Many of these small prints, like the Dumbarton Oaks Little Steps, Chelsea, (3) depict shop fronts, often with figures silhouetted in doorways, a favorite theme in Whistler’s art throughout his career. This particular shop front was on Lawrence Street in Chelsea.
Little Steps, Chelsea is typical of the many etchings, pastels, watercolors, and occasional oil paintings that Whistler made of the “back streets” of towns, including Paris, Venice, Brussels, and Amsterdam. He often focused on the shop entrance ways and the architectural patterns of these street scenes, placing people in the doorways or in the streets seen almost in a blur. In these works, Whistler believed that he was capturing for the first time a city’s unique character rather than recording its famous monuments and attractions. As he said about his etching in Brussels: “…I will have to invent their town for them as I did the Thames for the Londoners!” (4)
Whistler’s butterfly insignia is lightly etched in the plate to the left of the image. The Dumbarton Oaks print is of the second state of three, and like most of Whistler’s later etchings, the marginal paper has been trimmed away. Beginning in the 1870s, Whistler trimmed his prints to the plate mark, leaving a small tab at the bottom that was printed with his signature butterfly. Whistler explained this decision in his eleven “Propositions.” (5) He was against the use of wide plate margins and, especially, the sketching of miniature scenes, known as "remarques" in these margins, a common practice among print makers at that time and a concept similar to what Whistler himself described for the third page of his Memorial to Queen Victoria (see HC.P.1903.11.[DP]). Whistler believed that this practice created an unreasonable expectation among collectors for large-format plates, for an undue concern for the paper, and for the compulsory addition of marginal drawings. In his “Propositions,” he stated:
I. That in Art it is criminal to go beyond the means used in its exercise.
II. That the space to be covered should always be in proper relation to the means used for covering it.
III. That in etching the means used, or instrument employed, being the smallest possible point, the space to be covered should be small in proportion.
IV. That all attempts to overstep the limits insisted upon by such proportion are inartistic thoroughly, and tend to reveal the paucity of means used instead of concealing the same, as required by Art in its refinement.
V. That the huge plate, therefore, is an offence—its undertaking an unbecoming display of determination and ignorance—its accomplishment a triumph of unthinking earnestness and uncontrolled energy—both endowments of the “duffer.”
VI. That the custom of “Remarque” emanates from the amateur, and reflects his foolish facility beyond the border of his picture, thus testifying to his unscientific sense of its dignity.
VII. That it is odious.
VIII. That, indeed, there should be no margin on the proof to receive such “remarque.”
IX. That the habit of margin, again, dates from the outsider and continues with the collector in his unreasoning connoisseurship—taking curious pleasure in the quantity of paper.
X. That the picture ending where the frame begins, and in the case of the etching, the white mount, being inevitable because of it colour the frame, the picture thus extends itself irrelevantly through the margin to the mount.
XI. That wit of the kind would leave six inches of raw canvas between the painting and its gold frame to delight the purchaser with the quality of the cloth.
(1) Taft Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1962.7.
(2) The copper etching plate for this print, measuring 5.2 cm x 8.3 cm, is in the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, GLAHA 50594.
(3) See Edward G. Kennedy, The Etched Work of Whistler (San Francisco, 1978), 110, no. 262, and Frederick Wedmore, Whistler’s Etchings, A Study and a Catalogue, 2nd ed. (London, 1899), no. 213.
(4) Whistler, Brussels, to Thomas Waldo Story, London, September 14-18, 1887. University Library, MS Whistler S254.
(5) Whistler published his “Venetian Set” of twenty-six etchings in 1886, and with this publication he added to the catalogue eleven “Propositions.” See Elisabeth Luther Cary, The Works of James McNeill Whistler (New York, 1907), 116-118.
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. 2.
Reportedly purchased from H. Wunderlich & Co., New York, New York, date unknown.
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.