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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 apprentice,” in his novel Trilby. Whistler threatened to sue, and in subsequent editions the character was replaced by another.) However, two of Gleyre’s pronouncements may not be without relevance for the development of Whistler’s art. One was “black is the basis of all tone”; ivory black was seldom off Whistler’s palette and he was to become first and foremost a tonal painter, achieving his effects by working with gradations of a limited range of colors applied as tints to dark or neutral grounds. Gleyre’s maxim that “style is everything” is one that Whistler would come to endorse.

More important perhaps was the instruction that Whistler received at second hand from Lecoq de Boisbaudran, a teacher of great originality who insisted that his pupils draw from memory to encourage their imaginative powers. Lecoq’s precepts were passed on to Whistler by two of his students, Alphonse Legros and Henri Fantin-Latour, from whom Whistler had become inseparable, having decided that the hearty bohemianism of the Du Maurier set was not the real article; together they formed the “Société des Trois.” Through Fantin-Latour, Whistler met Courbet, already an influence on his art, and his talent began to blossom.

Throughout his first French sojourn Whistler maintained his contacts with England, staying mostly at the London home of his half sister Deborah, who had married the distinguished surgeon Seymour Haden, himself to become an accomplished etcher. It was there that Whistler painted his first important picture, At the Piano, begun in 1858 and finished the following spring. Its reception was mixed: the French tended to admire it but to many English eyes it looked unfinished and scrubby. The lure of London was very different from that of Paris. The Hadens provided home comforts, a certain degree of financial support, and contacts with prosperous art lovers. It was a lively time in England with the Pre-Raphaelites in their first flush and with the emergence of some spirited painters of contemporary life like W.P. Frith and Ford Madox Brown. But the artistic climate was many degrees cooler than that of Paris and to one of Whistler’s temperament the idea of being a bigger fish in a smaller pool must have been attractive.

Whistler now proceeded to raise the banner of Realism in Wapping near the London docks, in a series of works whose true originality suggests that, had he cared to remain in France and face the discipline involved in competing with his peers in Paris, he might well have become an important peripheral figure in advanced French painting of the 1860s and a very different artist from the one into which he developed. The daring of Wapping (1860–1864), the key work in the series, is obscured by the fact that the very restricted and traditional palette seems at variance with the freedom of the brushwork and the very revolutionary composition; the startling way in which figures and objects are chopped off by the sides of the canvas and dropped off its lower edge was to become a feature of the work of Degas and Manet; and the creation of space by the use of plunging and intersecting diagonal wedges which simultaneously zigzag up the picture surface again looks forward to developments in the work of Degas.

By now Whistler had met Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites and had captured, temporarily, the heart of Swinburne, who understood him and nurtured his mind. Hitherto his work had had about it a strongly French feel, but The White Girl, although it was painted in Paris during the winter of 1861–1862, shows Whistler standing on the no man’s land of the Dover-Calais packet boat. The pale, wraith-like figure of Joanna Hifferman, Whistler’s striking red-haired Irish mistress, is a first cousin of John Everett Millais’s youthful Victorian beauties; Jo, dressed entirely in white, spills flowers onto the snarling head of a wolf-skin rug, and the canvas is charged with some of the spiritualized sexuality of Rossetti’s contemporary compositions. So it is not surprising that the French critic Castagnary, who was prepared to read hidden meanings into the straight-forward voluptuousness of Courbet’s nudes, was able to write about the painting in these terms:

What have you wanted to do,” I asked this strange painter, “a tour de force of your craft as a painter, consisting in dashing off whites on whites? Permit me not to believe it. Let me see in your work something loftier, The Bride’s Tomorrow, that troubling moment when the young woman questions herself and is astonished at no longer recognising in herself the virginity of the night before.”

When the picture was shown at the notorious Salon des Refusés of 1863 it provoked a scandal that rivaled that of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe.

Throughout his life Whistler was to reject the imputation of any literary quality in his work, but he did so in terms so hysterical that one can’t help wondering if he was not dimly aware of its occasional existence. It is true that he rejected both the medievalizing and the anecdotal storytelling of so much contemporary English art. But it seems to me that literary quality in painting doesn’t necessarily imply a narrative content; and the fact remains that from Whistler’s written and recorded descriptions of the Thames at night we could form a fairly accurate picture of what his paintings of it might look like, while it is impossible to convey by words alone the impression produced by a landscape by, say, Monet or Cézanne. And one has only to compare the White Girl with Courbet’s subsequent tributes to the same model to see how far Whistler was detaching himself from the meatiness of Courbet’s realism, which, it should be added, he had in any case never been able to swallow whole.

Paradoxically it was at the time when Whistler’s contacts with progressive French painting were beginning to weaken that he made what is perhaps his most significant contribution to the history of modern art. If Oriental and in particular Japanese art was discovered simultaneously by several Western painters, Whistler was the very first to manifest its influence overtly in his art and to popularize it, particularly in England, as a symbol of refined and emancipated aesthetic sensibility. In The Little White Girl of 1864, even if it were not for the fact that Jo holds a Japanese fan, the presence of a spray of fruit blossom in the bottom right hand corner and of a blue and white Chinese covered jar on the mantel shelf would be enough to inform us of Whistler’s great new passion.

Japanese prints owned by him at the time of his death can be consulted in the British Museum, and they demonstrate that he was invariably drawn to Japanese woodcuts which showed an awareness of the elements of Western perspective; and it has been suggested that Whistler in turn assimilated Oriental concepts of space into those of Western art. Yet this is precisely what he failed to do; and it is strange that an artist who had shown genuine originality in his own handling of space should have failed to overlook the spatial implications in almost all Japanese art, including that of the popular ukiyo-e prints. For while the first impression of these prints is almost always that of a bold surface design which is strikingly decorative, a closer examination shows that they are imbued with spatial sensations which are achieved not only through their own spatial conventions but because the negative spaces, the empty areas, are as highly calculated and important to the whole as are those filled by figures and objects. The result is that just as the tautness of the bounding contours of the flat Japanese figures endows them with a subsidiary three-dimensionality, so do the empty compositional areas slowly yield up sensations of space.

Of all the painters of this generation perhaps only Degas showed an awareness of the importance of negative space and of the spatial complexity of Japanese art, and this awareness was to be a source of enormous strength to his own art. For Whistler the decorative qualities of Japanese art were uppermost, and indeed from some of his remarks one might infer that his purpose was to decorate a canvas rather than to paint a picture. In a letter of 1868 to Fantin-Latour he writes:

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