This copy of Nocturne by James Whistler, an etching and drypoint from 1879-80, made a record price for a print by the artist when it sold for $235,000 (£148,496) at Swann in New York in 2010. With premium, the price was $282,000 (£178,195). Showing the view across the Bay of Venice, it was one of the artist’s earliest and most celebrated views of the city. This second state (of five) impression was described as the ‘finest known’ with the velvety rich black inking, heavy chiaroscuro and the soft glow of light from the tall-masted ship. It features Whistler’s shaded butterfly signature in pencil.

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Instead of seeing prints as a bland and repetitive medium, a group of artists were exploring the technical and creative aspects of etchings in particular and rediscovering the very idea of the painter-printmaker.

Artists such as Charles Meryon (1821-68) and printers like Auguste Delâtre, who formed the Société des Aquafortistes in 1862, sought to promote etchings as both a commercial and an academic medium.

Whistler himself had received some training in etching through his work in the drawings division of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. But now, encouraged by his peers in the French capital - and his brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden, a London surgeon printmaker and collector of Rembrandt prints - the American artist began producing etchings in a serious way.

It was the start of a remarkable journey in printmaking. Whistler is today regarded as not just one of the great innovators in the sector but also a draughtsman whose creations bridge the divide between traditional and modern prints.


Among Whistler’s rarest etchings is this depiction of amateur musician Ross Winans. The sitter lived in Baltimore for most of his life and was related to the artist by marriage. His father, like Whistler’s, was a railroad engineer. From an edition of only 10, this copy of the etching and drypoint from 1860 made the second highest auction sum for a printed portrait by Whistler when it flew over a $10,000-15,000 estimate and sold for $95,000 (£61,690) at Swann in 2015.

Over the course of a long career he produced close to 500 etchings and nearly 200 lithographs. The medium offered him the opportunity to sketch ideas quickly, then slowly refine and develop them through multiple revisions. Overseeing the entire printing process from inking to paper, some of his prints run to no fewer than 20 states.

Whistler’s first series of prints - Douze eaux-forts d’après nature often simply called ‘the French Set’ - showed him already working at the cutting edge. In the summer of 1858, sketching en plein air in Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland, he drew directly onto copper plates before heading back to his room to bathe them in acid and etch the printable lines.


Nocturne from 1878 is one of Whistler’s early lithographs of Victorian London. In producing this view of the Thames at Battersea, he worked directly on the stone (rather than using transfer paper), applying ink washes to create atmospheric effects. This copy of the second state (of two) from an edition of approximately 100 made $40,000 (£32,115) at Swann in 2016.

However, it was not until the publication of a set of views of the Thames in London in 1871 that he experienced commercial success and became attuned to the financial possibilities that working in multiples offered.

Whistler is regarded as the originator of today’s ubiquitous limited edition. Famously sometimes in desperate need of money - not least in 1878 after losing a libel case against the critic John Ruskin who had described the American’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold as ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ - he released series after series through his dealer The Fine Art Society.

In 1879, Marcus B Huish and Ernest Brown, owner of the Bond Street dealership, bought the plates for the Thames Set and financed Whistler’s stay in Venice where he found great inspiration and over 11 months produced 50 etchings, 100 pastels and seven or eight paintings.


The Fishing Boat, another of Whistler’s Venice etchings dating from 1879-80, is a well known image having appeared in his Second Venice Set (A Set of Twenty-Six Etchings by James A. McN. Whistler, published in 1886). This good impression of the final state (of six) before the cancellation of the plate was signed in pencil on the tab at the bottom and came to Forum Auctions in 2021 where it took a mid-estimate £1000.

The market

Today, Whistler prints make a wide range of prices. While the auction record stands at a hefty $235,000 (£148,500) for a copy of the Venetian Nocturne from 1879-80, other prints can be acquired for sums in the hundreds rather than thousands of pounds.

This is explained simply by supply.

Whistler allowed large numbers of impressions to be taken from his plates - often as many as could be sold. His plates were frequently sold and resold by publishers in Paris and London and by the artist himself as bankruptcy proceedings began in the late 1870s.

Later in the 1890s, he contributed lithographs for several mass-produced fine art journals such as The Studio and on today’s market these bountiful prints tend to be available at lower price points, often well below £1000.

At the top end, the most desirable and valuable prints are those that were part of the early runs overseen directly by the artist. Those examples often have either his written signature or the famous butterfly emblem he used as a stamp of approval. At some point he started trimming the margins of the paper but leaving a small tab to the lower edge for the butterfly. Copies with the tab intact retain a cachet.

Over the years the values of Whistler prints have fluctuated. During the early part of the 20th century, collecting was at its zenith as the ‘etchings boom’ lifted prices to phenomenal levels. That bubble burst with the Wall Street Crash in 1929.

Prices in the latter half of the 20th century rose robustly as Whistler’s importance as an artist - especially as the most prominent American artist of his day - became more recognised.

It was a market underpinned by wealthy connoisseur collectors although, as with other sectors of the art market, their number has declined over the last 20 years or so. At the same time, the supply of the most sought-after etchings and lithographs in good condition has fallen back as established buyers become reluctant to sell.

Benefiting those buying and selling today is the online publication in 2012 of a catalogue raisonné of Whistler’s etchings by the University of Glasgow. Working with the Whistler Etching Project, it has amassed records of over 9500 individual impressions, some catalogued for the first time.

With new information on a wide range of known etchings, the project is not just a valuable resource for tracing particular copies, but, as stated on its website, it has ‘cast fresh light on the art of Whistler and the art-world of the 19th century’.

Frequent write-ups on Whistler

Catalogues raisonnés of Whistler prints go back a long way.

The earliest, A Catalogue of the Etchings and Drypoints of James Abbott MacNeil Whistler, was published in 1874 by Ralph Thomas when the artist was still mid-career.

A lawyer, Thomas’ brother Edmund was a Bond Street dealer and print publisher who hoped to hold a one-man exhibition of Whistler etchings in his gallery (it finally took place in 1887).

The next major catalogue raisonné was Whistler’s Etchings: a Study and a Catalogue produced by Sir Frederick Wedmore in 1886 while, in the US, Edward G Kennedy then published The Etched Work of Whistler in 1910. The latter remains much in use as a standard reference and works are often still catalogued with their ‘Kennedy’ number when they appear at auction.

In terms of Whistler’s lithographs, the most prominent compilations today are Mervyn Levy’s 1975 catalogue raisonné, and the 1998 scholarly tome produced by Nesta Spink, Harriet Stratis and Martha Tedeschi. The latter was made available free online by The Art Institute of Chicago in 2021, complementing the University of Glasgow catalogue raisonné of Whistler’s etchings online since 2012.

Q&A with Todd Weyman


Todd Weyman, vice president and director of American art, Contemporary art, prints and drawings at Swann Auction Galleries.

What do you love about Whistler prints?

Whistler had such a long and prolific career as a printmaker, active for six decades, from the 1850s to the early 1900s. Among the things I love about his prints is the sheer variety of work he produced.

He is one of the few printmakers whose work bridges the eras of the Old Masters with the Modern. Above all, Whistler was among the most experimental printmakers the world has ever seen, and the prints he created, at the time he worked, are mind-boggling.

Is it known exactly how many different prints Whistler produced?

He produced 490 different etchings and 179 lithograph subjects.

Why is the supply and range of Whistler prints so much greater than those of other artists of the period?

Whistler was, like his predecessors Rembrandt van Rijn and Francisco José de Goya, his contemporary Edouard Manet, and his successors, notably Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns, among the great painter-printmakers (peintre-gravures). He produced an expansive oeuvre of both paintings and prints, not to mention drawings, over many decades of his abundantly creative career.


Todd Weyman’s favourite Whistler prints include The Pierrot, an etching dating from the artist’s stay in Amsterdam in 1889 ($22,000/£14,300 in 2015).

He was also an excellent promoter of his art and worked closely with galleries to market and sell his prints. He was at the forefront of what today we mostly take for granted when considering printmaking and multiples in general: the notion of the limited edition. He was among the first artists to market his prints as limited editions, with specified editions, and to hand sign his prints in pencil, frequently with his characteristic butterfly monogram.

How easy is it to determine when a Whistler etching dates from?

Whistler dated many of his prints, either directly in the etching plate or on the lithographic matrix, so these appear on the various impressions he made. There is also a pronounced difference in style marking his work of the late 1850s through to the early 1870s versus that of the mid-1870s through to the 1890s, as well as a wealth of scholarship regarding the dating of his prints.

What would you say are the key variables in the current market?

Among the foremost factors is recognisability. The more a print looks like a familiar subject and style of Whistler’s, generally the more significant value. So, classic images of Venice or scenes of the Thames stand above the rest.

A decade or so ago encyclopedic collections of Whistler’s prints were still being formed by connoisseurs, and there was enthusiasm across the board for all print subjects by Whistler - both familiar and atypical. Today this is decreasingly the case. Less value is currently placed on very scarce prints that are also lesser-known subjects.

Do you have a personal favourite print by Whistler?

I would choose The Pierrot, 1889, an intimate, beautifully modelled and harmonious Amsterdam canal side scene as my favourite etching, and for a lithograph I think the Nude Model, Reclining, 1893, is among the tops. It is as beguiling a studio nude as any other 19th century artist produced.


Todd Weyman’s favourite Whistler prints include Nude Model, Reclining, a lithograph from 1893 ($19,000/£11,700 in 2011).

How does the supply of Whistler prints coming to market compare to, say, 20 years ago?

There are certainly fewer Whistler prints on the market today than two decades ago. Then supply was more robust, both in terms of what auction houses offered year-by-year and what was available through dealers.

As the demand for his prints has waned, collectors owning stellar examples appear content to hold on to them.

How would you assess the state of demand at present? Is it possible to say who are the main buyers in this market currently?

Demand is not at the sustained and broad level as it was 15-20 or so years ago. So, while multiple buyers today might still chase a popular subject by Whistler, say a classic Thames scene from the 1850s or Venetian image from the late 1870s, it would be extremely difficult to pull off the sale of an entire, career-wide survey collection of Whistler prints with the success that the auction houses or a focused gallery did a couple of decades ago.

The market is so much more selective today.