London: Philip Wilson, 191 pp., $60.00 (Distributed in the US by Palgrave Macmillan)
Darren Waterston: Uncertain Beauty
In 1891, Stéphane Mallarmé, the most exacting French poet of his generation, helped bring about the purchase, by the French government, of his friend James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. One can see why this arresting 1872 portrait of Whistler’s mother, in mourning and seated in stark profile, might have appealed to Mallarmé and his circle of self-styled “Symbolists.” Whistler had applied the paint with ghostly, veil-like thinness, like “breath on the surface of a pane of glass,” as he put it. Anna Whistler’s gaze, facing a rippling curtain of Japanese indigo, seemed to turn inward—“on the wing,” as the Symbolist art critic and novelist J.K. Huysmans wrote approvingly, “towards a distant dreaminess.” With its muted expanses of gray and black, this large painting—well over five feet across and nearly square—could be seen as pensive, otherworldly, “spiritual.”
When Alfred Barr Jr., founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, borrowed Whistler’s Mother (as the popular picture had come to be known) from the Louvre forty years later, he hoped to raise lagging attendance during the depths of the Depression while at the same time reminding museumgoers of how daringly modern an artist Whistler—some kind of an American after all, despite his long residency in Russia, Paris, and London—was. As the picture began a coast-to-coast tour of the United States, it became clear that the huge crowds lined up in cities from Baltimore to San Francisco saw other things in the painting than an audacious arrangement of abstract forms. In March 1934, the postmaster general announced that a stamp bearing Whistler’s mother would be issued for Mother’s Day—President Roosevelt himself had reportedly selected the image. The stool at Anna Whistler’s feet was replaced on the stamp with a pot of flowers.
Muttering disdainfully about “moth- er cults of the past” and retrograde “American Protestantism,” Barr maintained that if the notoriously combative Whistler were still alive, “he would be enraged by the adulteration of his design.” One feels that Barr’s unease—an unease that in various guises has dogged Whistler’s reputation to this day—was less about what he confidently called “Whistler’s intention” than about the outpouring of emotion directed at Whistler’s painting, as though such sentiment were somehow an illegitimate response to the intellectual rigors of modern art.
And yet, what exactly was Whistler’s intention in complex paintings like Arrangement in Grey and Black, which appeal to different viewers in such sharply diverging ways? To take another example, what are we to make of Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1861–1862), in which a serene young woman dressed in virginal white stands upon a bearskin (or, perhaps, a wolfskin—opinions differ), and the seemingly wide-awake animal stares at the viewer with teeth bared? Are we really any closer, today, to knowing the answers? An engaging new biography by the…
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