The Unsafe Tenement, One of the 'Twelve Etchings from Nature,' or the 'French Se

Accession Number

The Unsafe Tenement, One of the 'Twelve Etchings from Nature,' or the 'French Se

James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Artist Nationality
American (North American)

Object Creation Date

Medium & Support
etching, printed in black ink on Japan paper, laid down on white wove plate paper

9 3/4 in x 12 13/16 in (24.77 cm x 32.54 cm);14 5/16 in x 19 5/16 in (36.35 cm x 49.05 cm)

Credit Line
Bequest of Margaret Watson Parker

Label copy
The Unsafe Tenement, from the French Set, or Twelve Etchings from Nature
Etching on Japan paper
Second state of four (Kennedy 17)
Bequest of Margaret Watson Parker, 1954/1.324
In this depiction of a rural farmhouse in Alsace seen in bright sunlight, the ramshackle building with its lean-to and half-timbered walls fills most of the plate, creating a suffocating closeness—a constriction underscored by the horizontal line work in the sky. The dark shadows cast by the overhanging eaves lend an air of menace.
This plate was reworked several times. In the first state, a woman sweeping accompanied the two children talking through an open gate. In the second state, shown here, this figure has been replaced with a pitchfork—an ominous element. By the third state, the lines in the sky had been removed—by Seymour Haden, according to his own report—releasing much of the tension in the image.

Subject matter
This view of a rustic farmhouse carries a note of menace: Whistler used the chiaroscuro of the dark shadows and brilliantly lit exterior walls and vacant but open doors and windows to heighten the sense of abandonment. In an earlier state of the plate, a woman stood in the yard with the children and the sleeping dog; the artist burnished out the woman and replaced her with the pitchfork. Another ominous aspect to this image is Whistler's decision to fill the sky with horizontal lines, thus imparting a claustrophobic or oppressive atmosphere to the plate.

Physical Description
A ramshackle, half-timbered house fills most of the plate. Seen from an angle, the view of the house is accented by the sharp shadows created by dormer windows and a patchwork of overhanging roof. In the foreground, at the left, a dog is curled up sleeping in the sun; next to him leaning against the house is a pitchfork. At the center foreground, two children speak to one another through a partially open doorway or gate in the yard.

Primary Object Classification

Collection Area

If you are interested in using an image for a publication, please visit for more information and to fill out the online Image Rights and Reproductions Request Form.

Canidae (family)
abandoned dwellings
children (people by age group)

5 Related Resources

Food Cultures
(Part of 4 Learning Collections)
(Part of 6 Learning Collections)
(Part of 4 Learning Collections)
Social Justice
(Part of 3 Learning Collections)
Social Justice and Art in the 19th Century
(Part of 3 Learning Collections)

& Author Notes

Web Use Permitted