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Between and Mortarboard

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Whistler with a hat

Accession Number

Whistler with a hat

James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Artist Nationality
American (North American)

Object Creation Date

Medium & Support
drypoint, printed in black ink on laid paper

11 5/8 in x 8 11/16 in (29.53 cm x 22.07 cm)

Credit Line
Bequest of Margaret Watson Parker

Label copy
Portrait of Whistler
Etching and drypoint
Second state of two (Kennedy 54)
Bequest of Margaret Watson Parker, 1954/1.341
Throughout his career, Whistler was acutely aware of his self-presentation. This early print shows him self-consciously evoking Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)—an artist renowned for scrutinizing his own features in self-portraits, and considered then, and now, to be one of the greatest printmakers of all time. Whistler was already living abroad when this etching was made, but always an individualist, he depicts himself wearing a wide-brimmed hat “of an American shape not yet well known in Europe.” Rembrandt, too, famously depicted himself in a black hat, and through this accoutrement, Whistler is clearly paying homage to and identifying himself with this past master, suggesting the degree of his ambitions in the medium of printmaking.
For all the stories of his jaunty youth as an “idle apprentice,” here the artist is portrayed as critical, inquiring, and observant. The hands, pencil, and paper in this self-portrait are only summarily indicated; the focus is on the young artist’s features, rendered in delicate etched lines. Whistler’s concentration on the essential aspects of the composition, which he later described as “the secret of drawing,” is already visible in this early work. His followers Walter Sickert (1860–1942) and Mortimer Menpes (1855–1938) described how he would begin a composition by “seizing upon the chief point of interest.” After drawing that completely, he expanded outward, capturing the peripheral elements more broadly and summarily.
Please see the case in the exhibition’s Looking at Prints section for examples of etchings by Rembrandt.

Subject matter
Although Whistler acquired a reputation for being a café bon vivant and someone who lounged around rather than working hard, Whistler was, in fact, quite serious about his art and was a prolific draftsman. Here he is seen in his characteristic "American" style hat carefully scrutinizing his own features.
Whistler was always very conscious of the example of Rembrandt and this etching and drypoint shows the young Whistler exploring self-portraiture--a subject to which Rembrandt returned many times. It also is an example of an approach to image-making that Whistler only put to words around 1880, known as his "secret of drawing." He said that the proper way to make a drawing is to first seize the chief object of interest and draw that completely. Then secondary objects can be more summarily drawn. In this way, the work is always "complete" from the start, regardless of how thoroughly the subsidiary elements are completed. The most important motif is his own features--these are drawn fully while his shoulders, hands, etc. are rendered more summarily.

Physical Description
A man with curly hair and a moustache is shown looking at the viewer. He is wearing a dark, broad-brimmed hat at a slight angle, a ribbon hanging over the brim on the right side. His hands are barely indicated, but he is holding paper in his left hand and writing or drawing with his right hand.

Primary Object Classification

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