art in the blink of an eye: Whistler’s “Quiet Canal”

In one of the bedrooms at the Paine Art Center (Yes, bedrooms in an art center.  It’s really more of a historic house.) is a little Whistler etching.  It’s really very charming.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, "Quiet Canal," 1879-80, etching

It’s also really very small — only about 9″ x 6″.  At first glance, it’s already amazing how Whistler so accurately captured the feel of being in Venice, probably on a bridge over a relatively narrow canal. But this is also one of those artworks that rewards a close look.  It’s not until you look closely that you see that there are people in the scene, on land and in the boat in the foreground.   And the title, “Quiet Canal.” Can’t you hear the water gently lapping against the buildings, maybe some slight echoing from the sound of the water hitting the boats?  It’s called “Quiet Canal,” after all, not “Silent Canal.”  Maybe you can hear the people talking to each other from time to time.   If you really want to steep yourself in it, the wonders of the internet allow you to read the full text of “With Whistler in Venice,” written in 1907 by  Otto Bacher.  It’s as interesting for the style and a snapshot of the time as it is for the information about Whistler.

Here’s another etching from the same time.  This one slows me down, in a really good way. It takes my breath away:

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, "Little Venice," 1879-80

A little background:  Whistler left London broke and in disgrace in 1879 and went to Venice, where he spent over a year, developing, “an approach to the city that would distinguish his work from the anecdotal sentimentality of established Victorian imagery.  Avoiding subjects such as architectural landmarks and large-scale figural scenes, Whistler instead focused on a Venice that was known to contemporary Venetians — the long vistas, the back alleys, the quiet canals, and the isolated squares.”  (Eric Denker, Whistler and His Circle in Venice) When Whistler returned to London and exhibited these etchings, his career started to pick up again.  I think it’s clear why. If you see “Quiet Canal” on display somewhere (at the Paine, or in the Art Institute in Chicago, the Freer/Sackler Galleries in Washington DC, or the Met in New York, for example, in this country), stop, contemplate, and lose yourself for a few minutes.


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