Supreme Outsider

James McNeill Whistler 28-August 20, 1995

an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, May

Whistler on Art: Selected Letters and Writings of James McNeill Whistler

edited by Nigel Thorp
Smithsonian, 192 pp., $15.95 (paper)

The case of Whistler is an odd one. He became one of the most influential artists of his age, and his influence spread insidiously, like a stain, over generations of artists. His early work was admired by such giants as Courbet, Manet, and Degas; yet his total output of paintings was relatively small, and he produced a mere handful of individual works that could be described as having international importance. He was a celebrated wit and a dazzling conversationalist, but in the final analysis his mind was inferior to its intellectual pretensions. The famous “Ten o’Clock” lecture, which he first delivered in 1885, for example, is in reality little more than the frothiest gloss on the aesthetic of art for art’s sake enunciated by Théophile Gautier sixty years earlier.

During the last two decades of his life—he died in 1903—he was lionized by the Symbolists and the Decadents, although significantly enough it was writers and poets who now most venerated him. Because he belonged nowhere and yet longed to be at the center of things he managed to span a remarkable number of worlds while remaining the supreme outsider. It is characteristic of Whistler’s self-glamorization that he should have seen and presented himself as a Southerner. (Henry James once described him as “a queer little Londonized Southerner.”)

He was in fact born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834, the son of a former military officer turned civil engineer who in 1842 went to Russia to oversee work on the railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow. He was joined by his family the following year, and soon Whistler was enrolled at the Imperial Academy of Fine Art in St. Petersburg while also perfecting his French. After the death of Whistler’s father in 1849 the family returned to America. In 1851 Whistler entered West Point as a cadet at large; it was now that he incorporated his mother’s maiden name of McNeill into his own. He was an indifferent student and was discharged from the Military Academy in 1854; quite apart from the unruliness of his nature, the fact that he was extremely short-sighted unfitted him for a military career. Whistler was never all that fond of reading, but at this time the chance discovery of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème converted him to the idea of Paris and to Murger’s own somewhat vapid reinterpretation of the doctrine of art for art’s sake. Whistler arrived in Paris late in 1855 and lost literally not a moment in throwing himself into Bohemia. Never again did he set foot on American soil.

Whistler first of all attached himself to the circle of foreigners, mostly Englishmen, which revolved around George du Maurier. Like most of the group he enrolled as a student in the studio of Charles Gleyre (popular with foreigners), although his attendance there was infrequent. (Years later Du Maurier was to use Whistler as the model for Joe Selby, “the idle …

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