James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)

The Zattere: Harmony in Blue and Brown, c. 1879

Pastel, with traces of black chalk, on brown wove paper, 11 x 7 5/8 in. (27.9 x 19.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.162

The American expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler was one of the nineteenth century’s most influential, controversial, and experimental artists. He executed this work, considered one of his finest pastels, during a yearlong stay in Venice. It captures a view of the Fondamenta della Zattere, on the city’s busy waterfront. Positioned high above the passersby, Whistler worked on the image over time, but the economical rendering of the scene in sketchy black outlines, spare touches of color, and patches of negative space all give the impression of a fleeting moment. The high horizon and perspective testify to his passion for Japanese woodblock prints, from which he also absorbed an aesthetic of linear detail balanced with flat, open areas. The drawing’s apparently unfinished state and seemingly random arrangement of colors demonstrate Whistler’s iconoclastic ideal of art as the harmonious organization of color, line, shape, and texture—independent of imposed subject matter.

Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.