Etchings: An age-old medium on exhibition

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art presents an exhibit of James Abbott McNeill Whistler's prints--showcasing history through etchings.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
(photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art is presenting a selection of prints by American-born, British-based artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 1834 — July 1903). The exhibition showcases art from the peak of Whistler's career, demonstrating his unique ability to use print in order to depict new topics typical of the modern world. Active in England and France in the mid-19th century, Whistler's prints typically exemplify scenes from modern cities and the escalating industrialization accompanied by extreme economical and social changes. They also depict the daily lives of the working classes in Paris and London. Whistler utilized the unique qualities of etching to describe modern life from a socially and politically critical perspective.
The exhibit presents prints from Whistler's set of etchings called the "Thames Set," which he completed in 1960 after a year in London as a counterpoint to his 1858 "French Set."  The series "Twelve Etchings from Nature," from his French set, is directly juxtaposed against "Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects" in both subject matter and theme. Whistler's prints consistently demonstrate a complete mastering of capturing both foggy city scenes and rustic ruins; it is these etchings that mark the beginning of Whistler's trademark technique of tonal harmony based on a limited, pre-determined palette. Gifted at engraving, Whistler's large production of etchings and lithographs spans years of work. Many consider his finest to be the subjects at Thames, while others that depict more intimate street scenes in London and Paris are also highly valued.
"The Thames in Ice" is considered an early Impressionist work, marking Whistler as one of the influences of American Impressionists.  While studying in France, Whistler was even introduced to the circle of Gustave Courbet, who was close friends with Edouard Manet, both pivotal figures in the Realism and Impressionism movements. In 1892, towards the end of his life, Whistler left London to Paris and was welcomed by artists like Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin. Eventually returning to London in 1896, Whistler continued to create drawings on lithograpic transfer paper of the view of the Thames. Whistler's art was also highly influenced by Charles Baudelaire, who challenged artists to portray life and nature in less figurative way, avoiding symbolism and metaphors. His art, particularly the prints displayed in the exhibit from London, reflects this intense realism. 
Whistler's interest in etching stemmed from time spent in England; upon one of his returns to Paris, he traveled the French countryside and the Rhine region--creating some of the more simple, rural etchings displayed in the exhibit (that appear in "The French Set.")  His own signature movement Tonalism, however, is conveyed throughout the exhibition: Tonalism is an artistic style that emerged in the 1880s when American artists began to paint landscape forms with an overall tone of colored atmosphere or mist. Eventually eclipsed by Impressionism and modernism, Whistler's work certainly holds a very distinct style. A leader in the Aesthetic Movement--promoting "art for art's sake"--Whistler advocated simple design and the tonal harmony of the final result. His art avoids overly-labored technique and sentimentality. The body of work displayed at the museum showcases his impressive talents and gives credit to a prolific artist whose body of work truly represents a period of marked changes and intense transition.