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Becoming the Butterfly: Portraits of James McNeill Whistler

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4/30/2013 - 8/4/2013
Organizing institution: The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia
Throughout his career, James McNeill Whistler made sensitive, evocative portraits of family members, friends, clients, and models in oil paintings, pastel sketches, etchings, and lithographs. The etched and lithographic portraits of Whistler’s friends and family members in this exhibition document his transition from representations defined by dramatic light and shading to delicate, lightly rendered figures in unarticulated settings. Even though the intense, sharp lines of the 1850s portraits mellowed into the spare, subtle drawings of the 1890s, an intimacy between artist and subject characterized Whistler’s portraits, populated by seemingly unposed and non-idealized figures.

Whistler claimed that his portraits were simply arrangements of line and color and that they had nothing to do with the subject’s identity—even though the clothing, gesture, and expression clearly alluded to the sitter’s personality and relationship with the artist. While his early portraits demonstrated the influence of artists like Rembrandt van Rijn and Anthony van Dyke in the use of dramatic light and shade, by the 1870s, Whistler’s images of people shared the moody, atmospheric qualities of his work in other genres. His lithographic portraits of the 1890s, with dramatically cropped, lightly sketched figures emerging from indistinct backgrounds, show Whistler exploring the full power of aestheticism’s mandate of “art for art’s sake.” Featuring works spanning Whistler’s career, this exhibition examines the development of his artistic vision over time, through the lens of a single genre.


Exhibition Objects (9)


Exhibition Images (1)



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