Through the Wine Glass: Whistler and the Hour of the Little Cocktail

James McNeill Whistler, The Wine Glass (1858), etching, second state of two (Glasgow), image 8.2 × 5.5 cm, sheet 22 × 13.7 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1917.

James McNeill Whistler’s tiny study of an empty wine glass—perhaps a champagne coupe—on a footed silver tray (G.38) is the only still life among the more than 490 etchings in his oeuvre.1 In spite of his fascination with aesthetic objects, the artist’s later work suggests little interest in the genre, though he incorporated still life details into such other etchings as Reading by Lamplight (with its teacup) of the same year (G. 37). It may be that he used the elegant glass vessel on its gleaming salver chiefly to explore the play of light and shade on their surfaces in etching, a medium in which he became supremely influential. The print provides an early glimpse, not only into Whistler’s genius as an etcher, but also into what was to become a fully articulated life of bourgeois bohemianism, fueled by fine wines, whisky and the burgeoning domain of the cocktail, including that electrifying late 19th-century invention—the martini.

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  1. All G numbers refer to the Glasgow catalogue online, James McNeill Whister: The Etchings: A Catalogue Raisonné: The plate measures 3 1/4 x 2 1/8 inches. Most impressions were printed in black ink, but there are two known impressions printed in brown: one is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the other was offered in the sale catalogue of James McNeill Whistler Prints (London: The Fine Art Society/New York: C.G. Boerner, 2016), 20, cat. no. 12. []