Image and After-Image: Whistler and Photography

May 25–September 30, 2012

The painter and printmaker James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born just five years before the invention of photography in 1839.  Photography transformed visual culture during the artist’s lifetime.  With its unprecedented ability to record and reproduce realistic images, photography supplanted engraving and etching as the primary media for creating multiples. In response, the Etching Revival, a mid-to-late nineteenth century international art movement, sought to redefine etching in an era of photography.  With Whistler at the helm, the Etching Revival promoted an aesthetic of intimacy, lyricism and originality in a world increasingly given over to mass production.

Image and After-Image examines Whistler’s etchings in the context of Victorian photography.  Featuring 20 works from the Smith College Museum of Art collection, including photographs by masters such as Peter Henry Emerson, Julia Margaret Cameron and Alfred Stieglitz, the exhibition demonstrates how these artists took etching and photography beyond technological reproduction and into the arena of aesthetic innovation.  While photographers worked throughout the 19th-century to master naturalistic effects, Whistler explored etching’s potential for impressionism and abstraction. 

Image Credit: James Abbott McNeill Whistler. American, 1834–1903. Weary. 1863. Drypoint on lightweight Oriental paper. Purchased. SC 1969:4. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe.