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.
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.