Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 1999
J. F. Heijbroek and Margaret F. MacDonald Whistler and Holland Zwolle, Netherlands: University of Washington Press and Waanders, 1998. 144 pp.; 29 color ills.; 157 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (9040091838)

On September 3, 1889, James McNeill Whistler wrote a letter from Amsterdam to the Fine Arts Society in London describing, with an undercurrent of Whistlerian sarcasm, his most recent artistic activity: “I find myself doing far finer work than any I have hitherto produced—and the subjects appeal to me most sympathetically—which is all important. . . . I have begun etchings here—that already give me great satisfaction—I shall therefore go on, and I will produce new plates—of various sizes—The beauty and importance of these plates you can only estimate from your knowledge of my care for my own reputation. . . .” Whistler and Holland takes this body of work as its focal point, expanding the topic to provide an overview of the artist’s extended involvement with the Netherlands. The book, written jointly by the Dutch art historian J. F. Heijbroek and noted Whistler scholar Margaret F. MacDonald, was published to accompany an exhibition held at the Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, from August 16 to November 9, 1997. The exhibition, based on the ninety-seven Whistler prints in the Rijksmuseum, was supplemented by loans from public and private collections. Although restrictions on the collections at the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow and the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., prevented the inclusion of some of Whistler’s most important Dutch paintings in the exhibition, these works are united with the body of Whistler’s Dutch oeuvre in this elegantly designed and profusely illustrated book.

Heijbroek and MacDonald chronicle Whistler’s multiple visits to Holland, from the first trip with Alphonse Legros in 1863 to his final pilgrimage to the land of Rembrandt, de Hooch, and Hals with Charles Lang Freer in 1902. Vintage and modern photographs of the hotels in which the artist stayed, the canals from which he worked, and the buildings that he depicted enliven the text, which is written in a straightforward, easy-to-read, manner. The first chapter provides an overview of Whistler’s career, with particular mention of work exhibited or sold in the Netherlands. The authors employ a basic “life and works” approach, ignoring the small, but growing body of interpretive literature on Whistler and his art. (See, for example, Phoebe Lloyd, “Anna Whistler, The Venerable,” Art in America 72 [November 1984]; Elizabeth Broun, “Thought that Began with the Gods: The Content of Whistler’s Art,” Arts Magazine 62 [October 1987], or Kathleen Pyne, “James McNeill Whistler and the Religion of Art,” in Art and the Higher Life: Painting and Evolutionary Thought in Late Nineteenth-Century America [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996].)

Whistler’s trips during the 1880s—to Dordrecht with the Dutch artist C. N. Storm van’s Gravesande in 1884, to Holland and Belgium with William Merritt Chase in the summer of 1885, and to The Hague, Amsterdam and Zaandam with his wife Beatrice in 1889—were his most productive, and this last resulted in a series of etchings that the artist fruitlessly hoped to publish through the Fine Arts Society, which had taken on his Venetian views several years earlier. The book includes much new information about the location of Whistler’s images, although the thoroughness of this enterprise is sometimes lost on the reader without an intimate knowledge of Dutch cities. It become clear, however, that Whistler made a point of seeking out the less famous and more picturesque areas of town, an activity that also characterized his movements in Venice. Heijbroek and MacDonald consider the individual works with care and convincingly argue that the "Amsterdam etchings are not only a synthesis of the realistic and Impressionist phases of his career, “but of opposing values—realism and abstraction, Impressionism and symbolism, uniting the various strands of Whistler’s art and theory” (p. 86).

Readers interested in Whistler’s marketing techniques will find the chapter on printing and selling the “Amsterdam Set” particularly absorbing. When the Fine Arts Society declined Whistler’s offer, the artist (and his wife) undertook the distribution and sales of the Dutch prints on their own. Deliberate variations in printing ink and paper, as well as a limit on the size of the edition, enabled the artist to create a highly desirable product, the unique qualities of the etchings inspiring several collectors to purchase multiple impressions of the same print. As is typical in printmaking scholarship, the authors carefully consider the minute changes between various states and impressions of a work. Their exhaustive discussion of such issues as plate tone, ink color, and paper (Whistler adored and spent a considerable amount of time looking for old Dutch paper) persuasively presents the importance of printmaking to Whistler’s oeuvre as a whole.

The chapter titled “Whistler’s Influence” refers specifically to the Dutch response to the artist’s preference for the dilapidated over the stately, and low viewpoints (his works were often composed aboard the boat he used to get from one place to another) over panoramic ones. Not surprisingly, the Dutch critics were taken aback by the artist’s objectification of their city when they saw his work in 1890. “This admirable English painter,” wrote one critic quoted by Heijbroek and MacDonald, “has portrayed Old Amsterdam as a curious world of interesting slums, cute little quays and inviting mooring places, with remarkable ‘fire-and-water shops’ and narrow, old-fashioned facades with large, many-paned windows, and stairs hung with displays of drying laundry, and spinsters’ balconies with their precarious racks of flowerpots. But he was delighted by all this, and by the washing sheds, the rinsing steps, the lean-tos, and the outbuilding supported on posts, as if it were the stuff of a slightly exotic fairy-tale decor” (p. 106). Making Dutch criticism available, the happy result of an international collaboration such as this one, is one of the authors’ great contributions to Whistler scholarship. The duration of this chapter is dedicated to the prints of Dutch etcher Willem Witsen and photographer George Hendrik Breitner, neither of whom are well-known to English-speaking audiences. Both began to depict the poorer neighborhoods of Amsterdam in ways comparable to Whistler after his sojourn and exhibition of 1889 and 1890.

“In the Footsteps of the Master,” the chapter that follows, introduces other English-speaking artists who traveled in Holland during the late nineteenth century, among them Walter Sickert, Mortimer Menpes, Joseph Pennell, Frank Short, David Young Cameron, Alfred Stieglitz, and Alvin Langdon Coburn. Perhaps because of their interest in how these artists’ works formally compare to Whistler’s, the authors focus almost exclusively on printmakers and photographers. Such American figure painters as Gari Melchers and George Hitchcock are ignored (although Annette Stott’s dissertation on these artists is included in the Selected Bibliography), as are the implications of their subject matter and the larger question of what Holland meant to these American, British, and Australian individuals.

Issues of nationality influence art-historical scholarship today as they influenced Whistler and his audience (variously American, English, or Dutch) in the nineteenth century. The catalogue for the large Whistler retrospective held in 1994 and 1995 at the Tate Gallery in London, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., included essays on “Whistler and British Art,” “Whistler and America,” and “Whistler and France.” Although several Dutch paintings and four of the Amsterdam etchings were exhibited at this time, the lack of a venue in the Netherlands apparently precluded an extended consideration of Whistler and Holland. With this book, Heijbroek, MacDonald, and the the Rijksmuseum have addressed this omission, providing an exciting body of new information for Whistler enthusiasts to savor.

M. Elizabeth Boone
Professor, Department of Art and Design, University of Alberta