From April 5 to 28, collectors will have a chance to buy work that is the direct result of one of the nastiest reviews ever written. In 1877, in response to Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, a work by the American-born British artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, John Ruskin opined, “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”.
Whistler sued him for libel and the jury found in his favour, but even so, the costs contributed to his bankruptcy. However, this case led the gallery where he exhibited, The Fine Art Society, to commission a series of etchings known as The Venice Set to restore his finances – and works from this set, among others, will be on sale at the selfsame Fine Art Society, currently celebrating its 140th anniversary. Eighty works in total range in price from £4,000 to £125,000.
“Whistler’s long association with The Fine Art Society makes this exhibition an appropriate way to mark the 140th anniversary,” says Gordon Cooke, director of the gallery and specialist in 19th- and 20th-century British prints. “Whistler is one of the small group of artists whose work as a printmaker alone would ensure their importance in the history of art. He stands with Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya and Picasso in this respect.” In fact, the first of his works to be accepted for exhibition at the Paris Salon and Royal Academy were not paintings but etchings.
Whistler published four series in his lifetime – the French set, which was the earliest, dating from 1858, the Thames set and two Venice sets – and alongside these will be some rare etchings from the Amsterdam series, which was never published and which Whistler himself considered his greatest work.
This is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of prints by the artist in 45 years. Standout works include The Lime-Burner (London, second picture) at £18,000 and Venus (first picture) for £45,000, which was modelled by the first of Whistler’s mistresses in Paris, Fumette. Others are The Garden (Venice, fourth picture) at £42,500, Nocturne (Venice, sixth picture) at £85,000, Bridge, Amsterdam (fifth picture) at £100,000 and The Embroidered Curtain (Amsterdam, third picture) at £120,000.
Whistler was an innovator in other ways too. When he exhibited his etchings in 1883, he hung them in a single line along the white walls, abandoning the salon style of the Royal Academy – inventing both a prototype for a solo show and a style of exhibiting art that lasts until this day.