Nicole Simpson, George A. Lucas Cataloguer in the Prints, Drawings and Photographs Department
A loud crash rang out in Rotherhithe – a shipping district on the south bank of the Thames in London. A brick had fallen from the roof of a building where workmen were doing repairs. Seated nearby on the terrace of a tavern was the dapper young artist James McNeill Whistler. He was in the middle of etching the scene before him when, startled by the noise, he jumped and accidentally left a long, vertical scratch on the copper printing plate. Although he could have removed this unintended mark, Whistler let it remain (it is visible in the center of the print, between the masts).
While Whistler delighted in such spontaneous occurrences, he was also a careful and deliberate artist. He was particularly sensitive to how the selection of paper could affect the look of his prints – here he selected Japanese paper, which is a thin, translucent paper, to add a luminous quality to the outdoor scene. Whistler was so pleased with this piece that he exhibited it at the Salon in Paris in 1863.
This print is part of the collection of George A. Lucas, who amassed nearly 20,000 prints, paintings, sculptures and books. A native Baltimorean, Lucas spent his adult life working in Paris as an art agent for wealthy and respected art dealers and collectors, including Samuel Putnam Avery (whose print collection is now at The New York Public Library), and William and Henry Walters (whose collection is the foundation for The Walters Art Museum). Lucas knew many artists, including Whistler. Whistler was notorious for his cantankerous spirit and could be a difficult friend – he frequently asked Lucas for favors and money, once challenged Lucas to a duel, and embroiled Lucas in his romantic misdeeds. Despite this undoubtedly trying relationship, Lucas continued to admire his work and collected nearly 200 prints by Whistler.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.