Victorian Outsider: A Biography of J.A.M. Whistler
Since Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell published their Life of Whistler in 1908—with revised editions appearing until 1920—followed by The Whistler Journal in 1921, no alternative biography of any consequence, drawing on all of this basic material with the addition of much that has become available from different sources subsequently, has made its appearance. Stanley Weintraub, an experienced writer about the nineteenth century, has at last undertaken this task. And he has produced a well documented, diverting, and well characterized study, which delivers Whistler into our hands with all his panache, Yankee impertinence, artistic cult mania, falseness, and blemishes of character.
The trouble with the Pennells’ Life was that it was too “official,” too colored by tall stories told to his friends by Whistler himself, who obviously took advantage of their natural naïveté and journalistic delight in dramatic episodes to doctor the record to suit himself. The Pennells were all-time believers, faithful followers and unquestioning listeners. What they wrote, therefore, cannot be accepted as the absolute truth and nothing but the truth. Weintraub has questioned all he has read, checked and rechecked what has been published, delved into the pages of forgotten magazines and defunct newspapers, combed public and private libraries and archives for more information, and emerged triumphantly from his new exercise in biography with a racy, readable, and authentic account of the life, and a more realistic and acceptable interpretation of the character of James McNeill Whistler than can be found in any other book.
Fortunately, Weintraub has refrained from plunging deeply into the record of Whistler’s artistic activities and makes no attempt to appraise their aesthetic worth. But along the road he has raised enough problems and queries touching on Whistler’s art to encourage at least one reader to look afresh and critically at Whistler’s oeuvre in the light of this new interpretation of the man and his life.
Whistler is one of the most insubstantial, perverse, and ultimately pathetic artists for whom a rightful place has to be found in nineteenth-century history. When his life’s work is judged dispassionately on the basis of the originality of his vision, his technical ability, and what he actually achieved, it cannot be rated very high. Certainly Whistler is not in a class with Ingres, Millet, Courbet, any of the French Impressionists, Seurat, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, or Toulouse-Lautrec, to name his major European contemporaries. Nor in the American scale of values is Whistler’s work as substantial as that of Eakins, Homer, or Sargent. That is to say, in the perspective of today Whistler cannot any longer be ranked among the “great” of his time—though he constantly laid claim to this status—and this fact is all the sadder and more disconcerting because he was by nature and at all times a true artist in spirit, and started out with a will and gifts that might have enabled him to achieve a certain greatness.
Whistler’s failure as an artist was the result partly of his early awareness of a flaw in his talent, partly of his compensatory determination to shine as a Man if it was to be denied him as an Artist, partly of an obsessive vanity linked with snobbishness, which left him undecided whether to settle for the world of Bohemians toward which he gravitated naturally or to struggle to be the Artist in a world of Gentlemen, partly of professional laziness, partly of a ridiculous conception of what society owed to the artist as a superior being, and partly of the self-destructive elements in his character, which diverted his energies and impeded his artistic growth.
Whistler’s innate artistic instincts were already apparent by the age of five, when he revealed a passion for drawing. During his three disastrous years at West Point, which ended in his being expelled for indolence and indiscipline, Whistler spent some of his happiest moments attending a drawing class or making ironical sketches of cadet life and caricatures of plebes and officers. Yet from that moment on, Whistler’s fundamental handicap was to be that, not having been born a brilliant draftsman, he never mastered the technique sufficiently to meet his needs as a painter or an etcher. He had a marvelous natural feeling for paint as an expressive medium, and was capable on occasion of using it to beautiful effect. Yet most of the time he could not control his brushes and was seldom able to achieve what he wanted.
“The work of the master reeks not of the sweat of the brow—suggests no effort—and is finished from the beginning,” Whistler wrote in Propositions. But unfortunately Whistler had to make enormous efforts all the time, and seldom achieved that spontaneous effect of which he dreamed in anything except a modest sketch. Any larger canvas had to be scrubbed down many times before he got things into shape, and even then it was uncertain whether, after months—even years—of laborious and tiring reworkings, he would abandon it or pronounce it completed. But by that time the paint surface was tired and the picture was without brilliance or vitality.
Various reasons can be evoked to account for Whistler’s repeated downfalls. But the first considerations must be that his eyesight was defective—to this there are many witnesses—that he was a poor draftsman, and that he could never rely on mastery of a personal style to save him. What is more, Whistler had only a limited color sense and no sure grasp of tone. He did, however, have a great sense of decorative effect and of elegance. He was also sensitive and alert to various trends being developed in the art of his time, though he invented none of them and had no conviction which he should follow to achieve self-fulfillment. As a result, Whistler fell by turns under the spell of Legros, Fantin-Latour, Courbet, Albert Moore, Alma-Tadema, Monet, Rossetti, Velázquez, and Japanese art, and thereby allowed his art to become hopelessly eclectic and inconsequential. He understood the art of composition, though his use of it was conventional, artificial, and wavering.
More serious, Whistler had no compelling vision, either of mundane reality, or of mankind, or of some world of his own imagining. He therefore had nothing urgent to communicate and nothing in which he believed except himself and the attainment of aesthetic perfection. Thus what he basically lacked was a strong inner compulsion to fight against his shortcomings, to wrestle for mastery of the artistic means in order to achieve a forceful mode of pictorial self-expression. Instead, Whistler drifted, neglected his obligations to himself, and allowed himself to fail progressively as an artist. That is what gave him the time and energy to promote himself in Society as a significant artistic personality. Yet while those whose hospitality and friendship he sought, and whom he entertained at breakfasts and teas in the studio, appreciated his company and were diverted by his affectations and brashness, by his glib tongue and quick repartee, they laughed behind his back at his social and artistic pretensions and made no effort to fill their homes with examples of his work.
Whistler surrounded himself with myths and mystifications in order to appear more curious and interesting than he was, and to distract himself from the grim truth. By this means his whole life became enveloped in a tissue of lies and evasions. Being an impoverished American who on a romantic and adventurous impulse had emigrated to Europe at the age of twenty—and was never to return to his native land—Whistler was an “outsider” from the start, a man without roots, without social or professional status, who had torn himself out of his natural context and had to rely for survival on his powers of invention and potential artistic genius. Invention he had in plenty, as his whole life was to prove, but for art—his chosen profession—he displayed little more than a genuine talent. And it was the discrepancy between these two factors which led him into so many fights, for he sought constantly to be recognized as what he was not: the great artist he claimed to be.
Why did Whistler ever leave America? Primarily to escape from the crushing domination of his puritanical, God-fearing, widowed mother. Anna Whistler—her husband had died in Russia when James was just fifteen—was firmly convinced that the United States had no need of art, and that it was not in any case a proper profession for decent folk. When, therefore, James had written to his father, shortly before his death, that he “wished to be [a painter] so very much, and I don’t see why I should not,” she had replied firmly:
It is quite natural that…you should prefer the profession of an Artist, your father did so before you. I have often congratulated myself his talents were more usefully applied and I judge that you will experience how much greater to your advantage, if fancy sketches, studies, etc., are meant for your hours of leisure. I have hoped you would be guided by your dear father and become either an architect or engineer….
Thereafter, Anna Whistler tried to turn James first into a minister, then into a soldier, against both of which professions he openly rebelled.
The effect of this maternal pressure to direct the young Whistler’s energies into a respectable, practical profession was to focus his thoughts for his future more than ever on art. And this for reasons other than pure obstinacy. Whistler had been acquiring stealthily a sort of rudimentary art education at each stage of his apprenticeships: at West Point, where he had been granted special facilities for drawing and the master had predicted a brilliant artistic future for him when he left; at Winans Locomotive Works in Baltimore and also at the Coast Survey in Washington, where he had been briefly employed as a precision draftsman. Then too his half sister Deborah had married, during their father’s lifetime, an English physician, Francis Seymour Haden, who was a keen amateur artist, and the couple lived in London. This was a precedent James Whistler did not overlook. And lastly, the young man had, by 1854, read and reread Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, published in 1848, which gave a picture of what to his romantic imagination seemed “the ideal life” for a man of his temperament.
These factors sufficed to encourage him to ask for an allowance from his family and to set out for London and Paris right away. As one of Whistler’s friends and early biographers, writing with inside knowledge, has said:
To have an apartment in the Quartier Latin, to be impecunious but cheerful, to strike up friendships with eccentric characters, each a genius as yet unrecognized, to be intimate with models, to be familiar with waiters at cafés, and, behind and beyond all this, to burn with an unquenchable devotion for art—such seemed to Whistler…to be the only existence worthy of novel natures.