Figures in a Doorway epitomizes James McNeill Whistler's highly modern approach to painting, in which the artist exalts the aesthetic experience and emphasizes timelessness and beauty as the most important components of a work of art. Whistler is quoted widely as having written, "As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of color."
In September 1879, Whistler traveled to Venice to begin work on a set of a dozen etchings depicting the fabled city. The etchings were commissioned by his dealer, the Fine Art Society in London. He stayed for over a year, producing some fifty etchings, seven or eight paintings, and one hundred pastels. They were, as noted by one art historian, "some of the most innovative things he had ever done." (R. Dorment and M.F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, London, 1984, p. 179) In nearly all of these works, Whistler ignored the famous canal views and attractions of Venice, preferring instead to depict lesser-known corners of the city, such as the crumbling back streets and hidden canals away from the better traveled sections of the city. It was during this trip that Whistler redefined his style in his etchings and pastels. He simplified his works and focused on the dark shadows he saw within the city's structures. As a result, his work became more abstract and dependent upon a minimalist use of line and color, what Whistler termed "the Japanese method" of drawing.
John Walker writes, "The system--scientific, as he said, like all his systems--required him to find the exact spot where the focus of interest in the etching, lithograph, or watercolor was to be. Having selected the point of interest, he drew and completed this part of the picture. It might be a bridge, a window of a house, a doorway, or the sitter's head. Then he drew whatever came next in importance. But the most significant step was the placing of the subject. The procedure seems simple, but he used to say, 'The secret is in doing it.'" (James McNeill Whistler, New York, 1987, p. 87) With this new found minimalist aesthetic, Whistler applied his technique to all the mediums in which he created his masterpieces, including Figures in a Doorway.
Painted in either London or Dieppe, Figures in a Doorway was executed circa 1897 to 1899 and depicts figures emerging from the darkened doorway of a storefront. A contemporary critic of Whistler wrote, "The shop is probably the most perfect little thing of its kind that was ever wrought...It is without detail, without apparent labor, without dramatic interest, but it is exquisite in color, faultless in tone, and its well considered mystery has, at least, the interest of suggestiveness." (as quoted in James McNeill Whistler, p. 107) The composition is balanced with the door at the center of the work, surrounded by equal areas of the street and building and either side of the door, locking the figures into a pattern. Offsetting this sense of balance is the woman in the doorway and the dogs wandering the street in the foreground. The proximity of the scene emphasizes the abstract pattern of the work and arrangement of rectangles, anticipating the geometric abstraction of the twentieth century.
As a critic for the Evening Sun noted, "...the color easily takes the first place...They are color schemes, beautifully subtle and altogether lovely." (as quoted in James McNeill Whistler, Drawings Pastels and Watercolours: A Catalogue Raisonné, p. 370) Within the seeming simplicity of Whistler's Figures in a Doorway, he harmoniously employs broad washes of beige, terra cotta, ochre and brown for the plastered walls surrounding the door while the women are rendered in transparent washes of black. The simplicity and economy with which the artist achieves his desired effects of timelessness and beauty present the hallmarks of his highly celebrated watercolor technique and modern style.