Art Nocturne: The Art of James McNeill Whistler
Lautrec by Lautrec
“You behave like a man who lacks talent,” Degas once said to Whistler. There has never been much question about Whistler’s behavior, but only recently have writers tried seriously to come to terms with the problem of his talent. Mr. Sutton, in a most valuable and sensitive essay, has at last provided a critical study in the light of new research, much of it his own. It is surely a relief to find only the barest references to the quarrels and lawsuits which punctuated his life, and to be able to concentrate instead on his development as an artist. The story is a little sad, for though he produced many beautiful pictures, it is hard not to feel that he missed greatness not for want of gifts, but because of a failure to make the most of them.
A Bohemian (better still, an American) and strident in his claims to independence, he yet compromised with official timidity in a way that the bourgeois Manet never did. Wit and bad manners, alas, could not save his art from the endemic English disease of good taste, and looking at some of his society portraits one is reminded of Eric Satie’s comment that “M. Ravel has refused the Legion of Honor, but all his music accepts it.” Whistler alone of artists in England was in close touch with continental experiments, and it is tempting to assume that he setled in London rather than Paris because he knew that the art which he produced there would be sufficiently advanced to cause excitement, yet would not be subjected to the forcing-house conditions under which the more revolutionary French painters were compelled to live. Vasari tells us that Donatello went back from Padua to his native Florence because he felt that his art would benefit in an atmosphere of keen criticism: we find Whistler writing to Fantin-Latour that “it is England that welcomes young artists with outstretched arms.” Nothing could be more indicative than this invitation to a desert of cultural mediocrity extended to an artist who, like himself, was a charming but rather timid innovater. Yet this is by no means the whole story. Courbet had admired him as a young man, and Degas’s comment, though scathing, shows in a characteristically backhanded way how highly his greater French colleagues thought of him. Pissarro also was a most unlikely champion to the end. Praise from such sources is impressive, but also baffling, for Whistler’s affinities were not with any of these artists. He adopted many of the technical means opened up by Manet and the Impressionists, but used them to achieve totally different ends: an increasing concentration on elegance, refinement, mystery, and musical harmony. It was therefore entirely natural that many of his closest admirers were to be found among the Symbolists—men like Mallarmé, for instance (one of whose most beautiful lines Mr. Sutton unhappily misquotes). And some of his interiors very closely resemble the work of Vuillard, who may have …