Nocturne: Palaces

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)

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Whistler was commissioned to make etchings of Venice in September 1879. Scores of etchers had previously depicted Venice's architectural beauties, but Whistler was fascinated by the changing moods and shifting lights of the city.

Nocturnal effects were recaptured by leaving a film of ink on the etching plate, which had to be reapplied for each printing. Whistler trusted no one but himself to ink and print these moody impressions.

"I have learned to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived."-J.A.M. Whistler, 1880
Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

Gazing from his studio on the banks of the Thames in 1888, J.A.M. Whistler described the descending veil of night clothing the far shore in poetry. Warehouses were transformed into palaces, and tall buildings became bell towers. For Whistler, at that moment, London became Venice. The artist had made his first and only visit to Venice in September 1879, commissioned by London's Fine Art Society to produce twelve etchings in three months. Fourteen months later, Whistler returned to London carrying fifty etched plates-including Nocturne: Palaces. The palazzi may well be those along the rio di San Severo, near Whistler's lodgings on the Venetian lagoon, but the architecture was not his principal interest. Scores of etchers since the time of Canaletto, a century before, had already admirably depicted all of Venice's Byzantine-inspired tracery. What fascinated Whistler were the shifting lights and changing moods of the city.

He evoked a warm Venetian night-a single gas lantern magically revealing phantasms of palaces, canal, bridge, and gondola-by means of a subtle application and management of ink washes on the etching plate. Whistler trusted no one but himself to ink and print his Venetian etchings, and to identify these prints as his work from beginning to end, he marked each impression with his signature butterfly, making these the first pencil-signed limited-edition prints.

I have learned to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived.
-J.A.M. Whistler, 1880

Object Information

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
creation date
ink on papeer, etching with hand-wiping
11-3/4 x 8 in.
mark descriptions
monogrammed in pencil, on tab below image, L.L.: butterfly imp.
A Set of Twenty-Six Etchings (Second Venice Set)
accession number
credit line
Mrs. Pierre F. Goodrich Endowed Art Fund, Miscellaneous Print Fund
Public Domain
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

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