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Off the Beaten Path: Early Works by James McNeill Whistler

In the summer of 1858 James McNeill Whistler and his friend Ernest Delannoy left the cosmopolitan streets of Paris and ventured into the countryside of France and Germany, driven by a sense of wanderlust and artistic adventure. At the age of twenty-four, the American expatriate artist planned to travel from Paris to Amsterdam, where he would pay homage to the famous Dutch painter and engraver Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669). Along the way Whistler filled the pages of notebooks with impromptu pencil sketches that today form a visual diary of his journey. The trip’s purpose was serious, but many of the drawings and watercolors he created are charming and playful. Even though Whistler ran out of money before he reached Amsterdam and was forced to return home, the excursion through the countryside of the Rhineland shaped his mature aesthetic style and contributed to the development of his artistic persona.

Whistler’s personal interest in the work of Rembrandt stemmed from his study of etchings in the collection of his brother-in-law Seymour Haden, who had begun collecting prints by the Old Masters in the 1840s. One of his initial responses to these etchings is Early Portrait of Whistler, in which the artist models himself after the 1636 etching Rembrandt and His Wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh.

Seventeenth-century Dutch art played a crucial role in the development of Whistler’s style over the next decade. The varied subject matter seen in these prints, from Dutch-inspired genre scenes to depictions of storefronts, small inns, and rural towns, as well as their informal style underscore young Whistler’s enthusiasm for his art. Also evident here are the compositional choices, such as narrowing doorways, and the use of cross-hatching techniques to create three-dimensional forms that would later find a permanent place in Whistler’s unique pictorial vocabulary.

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