In 1879, the American expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler received a commission from the Fine Art Society of London to complete a set of twelve etchings in Venice. Whistler left for Italy in September but rather than a three month sketching trip, the visit lasted fourteen months. During this time Whistler etched, primarily in drypoint, around fifty copper plates.
Back in London, Whistler began to print from these plates, inking and wiping each impression personally. The “First Venice Set” (exhibited in December 1880 and published 1881) consists of twelve prints chosen from the fifty designs, each trimmed by Whistler to include his butterfly signature tab at the bottom. A “Second Venice Set,” consisting of twenty-six views, was released five years later. Whistler continued to print these plates until his death in 1903.
In 1975, a complete set of the Second Venice was generously donated to graphic arts by David Hunter McAlpin III (1897-1989), Class of 1920. McAlpin worked as a lawyer and investment banker but his true passion was for collecting. He amassed one of the earliest collections of photography in the United States (now the core of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and Princeton University collections). In addition, McAlpin gathered an impressive set of old master prints, now divided between the library and art museum collections.