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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:

It seems to me, that colour ought…to appear in a picture here and there in the same way a thread appears in an embroidery…in this way the whole will form a harmony. Look how well the Japanese understood this. They never look for contrast, on the contrary, they’re after repetition.

In 1866 Whistler made a mysterious visit to Chile, which was at this point fighting a brief naval war with Spain. From there he brought back his first evening or twilight pictures (as opposed to the sunset pictures executed at Trouville in the company of Courbet in 1865, his last year of genuine contact with French painting) and these flow into his first river “moon-lights,” which were subsequently called Nocturnes. And it is in the Nocturnes, which have fewer overtly Eastern qualities than the “Japoniste” figure pieces, that the compositional refinement and the decorative sophistication of Japanese art were assimilated to best effect. With his turning away from realism, which had all the fervor of the confirmed debauchee embracing a new mystical religion, the importance of a conceptual manner of work became all important to him.

In his portraits he continued to rely heavily on the model, but the coloristic harmonies and the poses were all very carefully worked out before the canvases were begun, while the river-scapes were the result of the sort of visual and mental discipline that remind one of the teaching of Lecoq that he had absorbed from Fantin-Latour. Whistler would spend hours, sometimes whole nights, on and along the Thames absorbing in silence every visual nuance of atmosphere; subsequently the paintings were executed in the studio, often very quickly, before the visual distillations could fade. This working method led to the heightening of a prevalent color harmony and always to a simplification of color, form, and design. These paintings stand at the opposite end of the spectrum, in every sense, from contemporary French Impressionism, which sought to cultivate an instantaneous response to transitory visual phenomena.

The term “nocturne” was suggested to Whistler by his patron Frederick R. Leyland. In a letter of the early 1870s Whistler replied,

I can’t thank you too much for the name “Nocturne” as a title for my moonlights!…it is really so charming and does so poetically say all I want to say and no more than I wish.

The first of Whistler’s paintings to have been given a musical title was Symphony in White, No. 3, a picture of two young women, dressed of course in white, painted in 1865–1867; subsequently both earlier White Girls got musical subtitles. The idea probably came from the fact that the critic Paul Mantz had talked about The White Girl as a “symphonie du blanc” when it was shown at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. And once again we are faced by an instance in which the aesthetic implications of Whistler’s work are in many ways more important than the paintings themselves.

The concept of the interrelations or correspondences between the arts had been very much in the air for several decades. Baudelaire had written on the subject in the late forties. Gautier, who was a “peintre manqué,” had consciously attempted to evoke purely visual sensations in his “Symphonie en Blanc Majeur” (published in Emaux et Camées in 1852), a work Whistler almost certainly knew. The fact that Henri Murger, a favorite of Whistler’s and a popularizer by nature, had a few years earlier made one of his characters compose a symphony on the influence of blue in the arts shows how prevalent such ideas must have been. By the end of the century music was firmly established as queen of the arts because of its non-imitative qualities. And Whistler was a link in the movement toward conceiving painting as music, which achieved its climax with the first coloristic abstractions of Kupka and Kandinsky soon after 1910. It is obviously oversimplifying things to see Whistler as a protoabstractionist; but if his “Japonisme” had a profound influence on the visual taste of his time, his insistence during the 1870s on the importance of divorcing form from content had an equally potent influence on many subsequent aesthetic theories of visual perception.

I myself always think of Whistler as a painter without a high maturity, possibly because he was, I suspect, one of those people who always think of themselves as being younger than they are, so that he seemed to pass from being enfant terrible to vieillard terrible with no visible transition. But the Nocturnes of the 1870s and the portraits of the early 1870s represent the summit of his career. The reception of his most famous portrait, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (1871), also serves to underscore the statelessness of Whistler’s artistic position. Despite the enthusiasm of Rossetti and Swinburne it was coolly received in England and rejected by the Royal Academy in 1872. Whistler declared that he would never part with the work (although he pawned it twice) but, largely through the offices of Mallarmé, he sold it cheaply to the Musée du Luxembourg in 1891 hoping that it would eventually find its way into the Louvre. It did, in 1925. When it was shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in 1881 it was ignored; but when the painting was returned on loan to America by the Louvre during the Depression it was hailed as a symbol of national identity. It toured a dozen cities and was seen by two million people. Security arrangements were unprecedented; when the picture reached Chicago it was met at the station by a contingent of federal troops led by General Parker. And Mrs. Whistler’s final departure from the country was a state occasion, presided over by the President’s own mother, Mrs. James Roosevelt, swathed in black satin set off by purple and white orchids. How Whistler would have enjoyed all that.

Ironically the picture had originally looked much more American than it did by then: sparer, flatter, and more direct. By the time that it entered the Luxembourg the canvas had already begun to self-destruct owing to Whistler’s reckless technical procedures. Maybe the fact that these had almost immediately given the painting the spurious appearance of a yellowing and decomposing old master added to its extraordinary appeal.1

Whistler was in any case by now looking to the past. In 1857 he had traveled to Manchester to the “Art Treasures Exhibition” which included fourteen paintings by or attributed to Velásquez. And Velásquez was to be the prime influence on Whistler’s portraiture, which from the mid-1870s onward was to stand at the heart of his work.

Whistler was clearly overwhelmed by Velásquez’s elegance and exactitude, by the way in which Velásquez could place a single figure on a neutral ground and then by adjusting its contours, moving them endlessly backward and forward, ultimately find the exact moment of psychological and pictorial truth that was right for both him and his sitter. Whistler comes closest to emulating his mentor in Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle (1872–1873), in my view the greatest of all his portraits. Here the craggy bleakness of the great Victorian historian and social critic finds an echo in Whistler’s obsession with reductiveness; and the neutral areas around him fill up with space and light, as they invariably do in Velásquez, but so seldom do in Whistler’s own production. And whereas the paint quality of Velásquez is characterized by a miraculous shimmer and freshness, despite the laborious processes by which so many of the pictures are achieved, Whistler’s practice of applying his paint wetly and thinly (often while the canvas was on the ground) onto almost unprimed canvas, and then frequently scraping and reworking, led all too often to poverty-stricken paint effects. Sometimes one actually gets the sensation that he disliked the very substance of paint; and maybe this accounts for the fact that Whistler is one of the very few major painters one can think of who often look more seductive in reproduction than in, so to speak, the flesh.

During the 1880s Whistler’s clientele changed. The respectable Victorian mycenae of the 1870s—such as the Leylands, Huths, and Alexanders—withdrew their portrait commissions after the notorious Ruskin trial, heard on November 26, 1878, This was the result of Whistler’s filing suit against the greatest of all English art critics, John Ruskin, who in his periodical Fors Clavigera had accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” (The accusation was in a sense strange since Ruskin was prepared to support Turner’s late work, which was often more vaporous and abstract than Whistler’s own.) Whistler was awarded a farthing’s damages; but the trial helped to cripple him financially and led to his bankruptcy the following year, referred to by Rossetti as Whistler’s “arrangement in black and white.”

Whistler had in any case for some time been cultivating the gentle art of making enemies with truly startling success, and colleagues, patrons, and friends alike were falling off fast. Now it was the “demi-monde” who flocked to his studio, “stunners” and adventuresses like Lady Meux, Lillie Langtry (the portrait of her was destroyed), and the notorious divorceé Lady Colin Campbell; and in his tasteful yet oddly flamboyant depictions of them Whistler began to anticipate the flashy society portraits of the Edwardian age. American clients had remained faithful to him and their portraits had found their way across the Atlantic; and after the unprecedented success of Whistler’s exhibition in 1892 at the Goupil Gallery, which set the final seal on his fame as a painter, the British establishment once again made its way to his studio. But he never forgave it and had come to hate his adopted country.

By the 1890s Whistler’s painting was showing signs of fatigue; the figures become increasingly elongated and insubstantial, the paint less and less eloquent. A self-portrait of 1895–1900, Brown and Gold, painted during the last illness of his wife, Beatrice, strikes a genuine note of psychological authenticity, and one senses that his grief and anguish is not only for his dying wife but for himself and for the direction that his art and his career had taken. And for some time now Whistler’s greatest successes had been in the field of decoration. The embellishment of his own houses and the design of his exhibition spaces were deemed to be unqualified successes. Their influence can still be felt today in many London houses of cultured people. It is revealing that in Deanna Marohn Bendix’s Diabolical Designs, a scholarly but entertaining book which focuses on him as a decorator, Whistler’s personality comes across every bit as strongly as it does in the literature dedicated to his paintings and graphics. 2

The current Whistler exhibition being shared between the Tate Gallery, the Musée d’Orsay, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington is the largest and most important since the memorial exhibitions held in Boston, London, and Paris in 1904–1905. The exhibition has been curated by an international team, intelligently and imaginatively, although the bulk of the catalog is by Richard Dorment and Margaret F. MacDonald. A high proportion of works on paper have rightly been included. Whistler’s mastery as an etcher was recognized early on (after his discharge from West Point he had worked as an etcher for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey), and his unorthodox methods in the medium produced genuinely original results; the watercolors are among his most exquisite works. And it was in his notations on paper that Whistler’s imagination roamed most freely (MacDonald’s Catalogue Raisonné of the watercolors, pastels, and drawings lists over 1,700 entries.)3 The Nocturnes, seen as a series, look hauntingly beautiful and startlingly original; they were Whistler’s greatest achievement.

But the opportunity for a major reassessment of Whistler’s art has been hampered badly by the fact that the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is not allowed by its charter to lend or borrow, although it continues to acquire new works. The Freer is home to Whistler’s “Japonisme.” It contains the famous Peacock Room, Whistler’s “adaptation” in 1876 of the dining room at 49 Prince’s Gate, his patron Leyland’s London residence. The project (and the costs) escalated until it became in effect Whistler’s creation; inevitably it brought about a bitter rupture between the patron and the painter, but it remains the most lavish and spectacular of all Whistler’s decorations and the climax of his Japanese phase; recently refurbished it is indeed a spectacle to behold. The Freer also owns the most important of Whistler’s Orientalizing canvases, including the ravishing Six Projects—although these might more accurately be described as Greco-Japanese—the collective name given to six oil sketches Whistler made for a putative frieze of figures, commissioned once again by Leyland.

Visitors to the exhibition in Washington will be able to wander over to the Freer; but the absence of these paintings in London and Paris is badly felt. Whistler’s “Japonisme” was at the core of his art. His adoption of it was linked to his turning violently against Realism and marked the beginning of his commitment to an aristocratic interpretation of the idea of art as something apart, something to be produced and enjoyed by the very few. But “Japonisme” was also his escape hatch, a magical mantle which he draped around himself and which allowed him to isolate himself not only from much of what was going on around him but also from certain deficiencies in his own talent. The conventions of Japanese art encouraged him to take shortcuts in his own.

The exhibition confirms what many critics and commentators, from Whistler’s own most important disciple, Walter Sickert, onward, have suggested: that Whistler was an evasive artist. And for all his great gifts and inordinate ambitions, true greatness in turn evaded him.

The catalog entries are exemplary but at times somewhat repetitive, because although the exhibition has been assembled in a roughly chronological sequence, the catalog has been broken down into themes—“Jo,” “The Thames,” “Valparaiso,” and so forth. Dorment’s great contribution to Whistler scholarship is to demonstrate Whistler’s indebtedness to the technique of English watercolor painting which deeply influenced his own oils; this had been remarked on, once again, by Sickert, but is here explored in depth. Dorment also underlines the importance for Whistler of the series of exhibitions of British portraiture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at the South Kensington Museum in 1866, 1867, and 1868. A total of 2,846 portraits went on view; and Dorment rightly attributes to the American the desire to reinstate, through portraiture, the “grand manner” in British art.

For well over half a century Whistler’s personal myth, which he was at such pains to foster, often at the expense of the truth, has helped to divert attention from the art itself; and the picture we have of Whistler is not so much that of the obsessive artist that he in fact was but rather that of a flamboyant personality who painted. A new biography by Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval, which has been fifteen years in the making, does much to separate the facts from the fantasy. It plays down the personal pyrotechnics, contains a wealth of new factual material, and is valuable to have; but it is also very long and less enjoyable to read than the monographs by James Laver and Denys Sutton. And nothing can ever detract from the enduring freshness of the reminiscences of Whistler’s disciples Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell, first published in 1908. They saw Whistler as the greatest genius of his age.

The reissue in an attractive facsimile of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a collection of writings put together by Whistler himself which first appeared in 1890, and another volume of selected letters and further writings entitled Whistler on Art help to confirm the impression that we are never going to be able to forget the public persona and concentrate on the art. And this is largely Whistler’s own doing; he was, quite simply, one of the greatest exhibitionists of all time. He was also one of the greatest of haters and in return it is hard to warm to him posthumously. The fascination Whistler held for so many stars of the French literary world, from Mallarmé and Huysmans through to the young Proust, is now hard to explain, although Edgar Munhall’s elegant and urbane Whistler and Montesquiou,4 which charts the course of the friendship between the painter and the poet who was one of the models for Proust’s Baron Charlus, does evoke some of the charm Whistler was capable of exercising. It may be, too, that in his affectations of speech, gait, and dress, and in his painted face, these writers saw some of the last tangible vestiges of the artificial dandy figure created by Baudelaire some fifty years before. And despite the vulgarity and the vituperation, the posing and the paranoia, Whistler did live his life with a certain hysterical courage which commands a measure of respect. Very late in life, during a bout of ill health, he made quite a good joke about his being “lowered in tone: probably the result of living in the midst of English pictures.” To which, when all is said and done, one can only regretfully add, his own, too.

  1. 1

    See “Reviving Whistler’s Mother,” The Times Literary Supplement (October 14, 1994), by Sarah Walden, who restored the painting for the Louvre. Her book on the history of the painting and its restoration is awaiting publication.

  2. 2

    Deanna Marohn Bendix, Diabolical Designs: Paintings, Interiors, and Exhibitions of James McNeill Whistler (Smithsonian, 1995).

  3. 3

    James McNeill Whistler: Watercolors, Pastels, and Drawings: A Catalogue Raisonné (Yale University Press, 1995).

  4. 4

    Whistler and Montesquiou: The Butterfly and the Bat (Frick Collection/Flammarion, 1995). An exhibition featuring Whistler’s Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou will be held at the Frick Collection from November 1995 through January 1996.

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