Born in the United States, living in Saint Petersburg Russia as a child, and growing up to split his adult life between Paris and London, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) led a peripatetic lifestyle that exposed him to several cultural environments and enriched his artistic practice. At the age of eight Whistler and his family moved to Russia when his father, Major George Washington Whistler, was appointed as the consulting engineer of the Russian Railroad under Nicholas I to build a railroad between Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Soon after the Whistlers settled in Saint Petersburg, Major Whistler hired Russian army officer Alexander Koritsky to nurture his son’s artistic talents and enrolled him in drawing classes at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. The Whistler family’s stay in Saint Petersburg ended abruptly after Major Whistler’s death in 1849; Mrs. Whistler then moved her family to Pomfret, Connecticut. Following in his father’s and half-brother George’s footsteps, James Whistler received one of twelve appointments offered by President Millard Fillmore in 1851 to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point. At the Academy, under the instruction of Robert Walter Weir, the young artist continued to receive praise for his drawing, though a year before graduating, he was dismissed due to his high number of demerits.

After a failed attempt to hold a position within the Etching Division at United States Coast Survey Whistler traveled to Paris to complete his artistic education and to pursue a career as a professional artist. In 1855, at the age of twenty-one, Whistler settled in Paris to experience the lifestyle of an avant-garde artist. Continuing to develop his etching skills Whistler was determined to study painting. Working closely with painter Charles Gleyre Whistler established relationships with other young French and British artists. Along with Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros he formed a collective known as the Société des Trois. Together the artists hoped to establish and promote new aesthetic trends while marketing their work in both in Paris and London.

Whistler’s brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden submitted etchings on behalf of both himself and the young artist to the Royal Academy annual exhibition in 1859. Two of Whistler’s entries were chosen and he left Paris to reach London in time for the exhibition opening in May. Haden then persuaded Whistler to settle in England. Sharing an interest in Japanese prints Whistler became associated with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and Albert Moore as he began to develop his own unique style. The River Thames was a source of inspiration for Whistler. In the 1860s and 1870s, he received praise and recognition for the publication of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects, known as the Thames Set, and a series of Nocturne paintings depicting the river at night. Capturing the natural light illuminating the surface of the water at dawn and dusk, Whistler established a new doctrine for painting—one that dictated a primary role for colour.

Acknowledged for developing a new artistic aesthetic within his painting, Whistler’s approach to printing and marketing his work in the 1880s and 1890s was also radical. Printmaking remained an essential part of Whistler’s creative practice throughout his career. After declaring bankruptcy following a civil case against John Ruskin Whistler turned to his etching practice to provide income and reestablish his professional reputation in the 1880s. Commissioned to produce twelve etchings of Venice for the Fine Art Society the artist’s etching technique evolved to resemble a calligraphic arrangement of markings. Each plate was then printed in a series of states to document a range of atmospheric effects, developed when wiping ink on the plate during printing, to evoke the experience of walking along the Venetian canals. After relocating to Paris in 1892 Whistler began to sell his lithographs separately as individual proofs on a variety of paper emulating his etching practice. Limiting the number of editions allowed the artist and printer Thomas Way to concentrate on one image at a time. The nature of the lithographic medium allowed Whistler to sketch on transfer sheets in Paris that would then be printed by Way in London. This arrangement offered Whistler the freedom to approach his lithographs as sketches while pushing the boundaries of portraiture within depictions of family, friends, and the Parisian cityscape.