The Charles Hosmer - Morse Museum of American Art

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Collection Highlights

Highlights / Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

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Billingsgate, 1859
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American, 1834–1903
Signed, lower right: Whistler 1859
Marks: Billingsgate K 47 / 9073
8 x 12 1/4 in.

American artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834–1903), born in Lowell, Massachusetts, began his impressive career as an artist making prints. Billingsgate is one of an 1859 series capturing the gritty industrial chaos of London along the docks of the lower Thames. Printed on a variety of richly aged antique papers, the images did not sell well, perhaps because they were priced too high for the market. Whistler patron Alexander Ionides (1833–1900) purchased the plates for resale to publisher Ellis and Green, which in 1871 reissued an edition of one hundred under the title A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects. They became known as The Thames Set. Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), one of the most influential French poets of the period, praised Whistler for the way in which the young artist captured London’s vibrant river traffic and life of the city. 

Whistler took his first drawing lessons at the Imperial Academy of Science in St. Petersburg, Russia, at age eleven. When Whistler’s father, George Washington Whistler, died in 1849, the family returned to America and the young artist entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, and then joined the U.S. Coast Guard and Geodetic Surveys, where he became skilled at etching maps and plans. After attending the Ecole Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin in Paris, the twenty-four year old artist completed Twelve Etchings from Nature, also known as The French Set.