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Whistler: The Enraged Genius

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, October 16, 2013–January 12, 2014; the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts, February 1–April 13, 2014; and the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., May 2–August 17, 2014
Catalog of the exhibition by Margaret F. MacDonald and Patricia de Montfort
London: Philip Wilson, 191 pp., $60.00 (Distributed in the US by Palgrave Macmillan)

Darren Waterston: Uncertain Beauty

an exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, Massachusetts, March 8, 2014–February 1, 2015; and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C., July 2015
Catalog of the exhibition, to be published by Rizzoli in association with MASSMoCA and the Smithsonian, is scheduled for publication in July 2014, with essays by Susan Cross, Lee Glazer, and John Ott


In 1891, Stéphane Mallarmé, the most exacting French poet of his generation, helped bring about the purchase, by the French government, of his friend James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. One can see why this arresting 1872 portrait of Whistler’s mother, in mourning and seated in stark profile, might have appealed to Mallarmé and his circle of self-styled “Symbolists.” Whistler had applied the paint with ghostly, veil-like thinness, like “breath on the surface of a pane of glass,” as he put it. Anna Whistler’s gaze, facing a rippling curtain of Japanese indigo, seemed to turn inward—“on the wing,” as the Symbolist art critic and novelist J.K. Huysmans wrote approvingly, “towards a distant dreaminess.” With its muted expanses of gray and black, this large painting—well over five feet across and nearly square—could be seen as pensive, otherworldly, “spiritual.”

Tate, London
James McNeill Whistler: Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge, 1872–1873

When Alfred Barr Jr., founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, borrowed Whistler’s Mother (as the popular picture had come to be known) from the Louvre forty years later, he hoped to raise lagging attendance during the depths of the Depression while at the same time reminding museumgoers of how daringly modern an artist Whistler—some kind of an American after all, despite his long residency in Russia, Paris, and London—was. As the picture began a coast-to-coast tour of the United States, it became clear that the huge crowds lined up in cities from Baltimore to San Francisco saw other things in the painting than an audacious arrangement of abstract forms. In March 1934, the postmaster general announced that a stamp bearing Whistler’s mother would be issued for Mother’s Day—President Roosevelt himself had reportedly selected the image. The stool at Anna Whistler’s feet was replaced on the stamp with a pot of flowers.

Muttering disdainfully about “moth- er cults of the past” and retrograde “American Protestantism,” Barr maintained that if the notoriously combative Whistler were still alive, “he would be enraged by the adulteration of his design.” One feels that Barr’s unease—an unease that in various guises has dogged Whistler’s reputation to this day—was less about what he confidently called “Whistler’s intention” than about the outpouring of emotion directed at Whistler’s painting, as though such sentiment were somehow an illegitimate response to the intellectual rigors of modern art.

And yet, what exactly was Whistler’s intention in complex paintings like Arrangement in Grey and Black, which appeal to different viewers in such sharply diverging ways? To take another example, what are we to make of Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1861–1862), in which a serene young woman dressed in virginal white stands upon a bearskin (or, perhaps, a wolfskin—opinions differ), and the seemingly wide-awake animal stares at the viewer with teeth bared? Are we really any closer, today, to knowing the answers? An engaging new biography by the historian Daniel Sutherland and two tightly conceived exhibitions, recently mounted in Whistler’s native New England and bound for Washington, bring renewed attention, and perhaps fresh perspective, to old battles surrounding Whistler’s life and art.


As a subject for biography, Whistler, who died in London in 1903 at the age of sixty-nine, is wonderfully alluring—in his vivid personal presence and in his commanding, ever-evolving art—and elusive. An inspiration in outrageous dress and deportment for acolytes like Oscar Wilde, Whistler contrived an elaborate costume of top hat, frock coat, monocle, square-toed pumps of patent leather, and a long cane that he liked to flourish menacingly. Meeting him by chance in a restaurant in Paris, Degas, who greatly admired Whistler’s work, is reported to have said, “Whistler, you have forgotten your muff.” The young Proust, more reverential, purloined one of Whistler’s gray gloves as a keepsake, and later modeled his painter Elstir after Whistler.

Whistler was one of the first artists to intuit a causal relation between personal celebrity and success in the art market (though Sutherland exaggerates in claiming that he “saw no difference between the creation and promotion of art”). He embroidered his exotic background and nomadic life. His father, an engineer born in Indiana and trained at West Point, was hired, when Whistler was nine, to oversee the construction of the railroad connecting St. Petersburg to Moscow. Whistler claimed that he himself had been born in Russia. When he was reminded that he had been born, after all, in Lowell, Massachusetts, he replied acerbically, “I shall be born when and where I want.”

His talent for drawing was noticed early; he was enrolled at age ten in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. After her husband’s early death in 1849, Anna Whistler, originally from North Carolina, moved the family back to New England. With little money for a private college, Whistler entered West Point instead, where he received training in technical drafting before being expelled—like his idol Poe before him—two years later.

Whistler claimed that he had failed a chemistry test. “Had silicon been a gas,” he joked, he “would have been a major general.” In fact, his unruly behavior (judged on a point system for infractions like drinking and playing cards) made it impossible for Robert E. Lee, the sympathetic superintendent of the academy, to salvage Whistler’s military career. Whistler briefly worked in the drawing division of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, where he learned the rudiments of etching, before leaving for Paris in 1855, having received his father’s legacy at twenty-one, to copy paintings at the Louvre and study in Charles Gleyre’s popular studio.

After moving to London in 1859, where a new industrial and banking class had expanded the market for artists, Whistler began the extraordinary series of etchings of the dilapidated neighborhoods of Wapping and Rotherhithe known as “The Thames Set,” which Baudelaire, another connoisseur of urban decay, found enthralling, “a chaos of fog, furnaces and gushing smoke.” Jo Hiffernan, a beautiful young Irishwoman with striking red hair, and the first of Whistler’s mistresses, posed for two marvelous paintings, Wapping (1860–1864; a lushly rendered view of lowlife locals at a riverside bar, prefiguring similar scenes by Renoir and Monet) and The White Girl. Paintings like these, exhibited in Paris, established Whistler as a leading painter in the loose-knit group of realists who were challenging the academic strictures of the government-sponsored Salon. In Henri Fantin-Latour’s Homage to Delacroix, Whistler, the central figure, is portrayed as a plausible successor to Delacroix himself, while Manet, Baudelaire, and others are on each side.

And then, shockingly, Whistler entirely remade his style. He had closely studied Japanese art and aesthetics, and had begun to collect, obsessively, blue and white porcelain from China. He had also, on a mysterious journey to Chile in 1866, begun to paint night scenes, or “moonlights,” that—like the Japanese prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige he admired—allowed for a radical simplification of subject and style. He had come to regret his allegiance to Courbet’s “damned Realism,” and his wasted years of “canvases produced by a nobody puffed up with pride” at his own skill. “Well,” he told Fantin, “it explains the enormous amount of work that I am now requiring myself to do.” It was during this intense period of reeducation that he painted the portrait of his mother, in the crepuscular mood of his nighttime views of the Thames.

It was these paintings, renamed “nocturnes” in Whistler’s ongoing attempt to make visual art as unencumbered as music with narrative or moralizing subject matter, that so shocked the aging and ailing John Ruskin, who considered them facile, unfinished, and overpriced. In Fors Clavigera, Ruskin contrasted honest, medieval (and presumably poorly paid) craftsmen with modern artists demanding “irregular and monstrous prices,” and singled out Whistler’s night scene of fireworks on the Thames, The Falling Rocket (1875), as an egregious example of such skewed values. “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now,” he wrote, “but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler won the lawsuit but was awarded a single farthing in damages by the jury and forced to pay court expenses, which, combined with other debts, bankrupted him. “The verdict, of course, satisfies neither party,” Henry James reported dryly in The Nation. “Mr. Ruskin is formally condemned, but the plaintiff is not compensated.”


The Ruskin trial is often seen, like the legal battles over Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses, as a landmark case in the inevitable progress of advanced art against the philistines. And yet, few had contributed more than Ruskin to establishing the taste for art like Whistler’s. When Ruskin, in Modern Painters, evoked “that mysterious forest below London Bridge,” with its “night scenery…against the moonlight,” we are as likely to think of Whistler as of Turner. Ruskin’s Modern Painters was itself provoked by a critic’s disparaging remark, in 1842, about Turner—strikingly similar to Ruskin’s own jibe about Whistler—whose pictures were said to be made “as if by throwing handfuls of white, blue, and red at the canvas, and letting what would stick, stick.”

For those who still believe that the arrow of nineteenth-century art follows an arc of ever-increasing abstraction to land, eventually, on Jackson Pollock’s studio floor, Whistler has come to occupy a privileged place. Sutherland refers to The Falling Rocket as “almost total abstraction,” and ascribes its supposed “revolutionary” impact to its radical departure from recognizable subject matter. And yet, as a seductive array of paintings and prints—some of which figured prominently in the Ruskin trial—at the Addison Gallery in Andover, Massachusetts, makes clear, Whistler’s career cannot be reliably mapped along a line of escalating abstraction, even if we ignore the exquisite full-length portraits in the style of Velázquez that he continued to paint into the 1890s.

The intensely observed early etchings known as “The Thames Set,” executed between 1859 and 1871, are, in an obvious sense, more visually “accurate,” more reliably informative about the appearance of particular buildings, shops, proprietary signs, and slagheaps than the later nocturnes, one of which has been identified recently as either a view of the Thames near Westminster or, alternatively, as a view of Venice. Even if it is suggested that the nocturnes document other things—mood, mist, industrial smoke, nightfall—anyone can see that these paintings have less direct reference in them than the earlier etchings.

But it can also be said, on closer inspection, that Whistler appears to be exploring two opposing poles of abstraction—like Pascal’s two abysses of the very small and the very large—in these divergent bodies of work. In the relatively large nocturnes, he often deploys “horizontal ribbons of diluted, translucent paint” right across the picture, and “comes close,” as Patricia de Montfort writes in An American in London, “to abandoning topographical detail entirely.” In Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge (1872–1873), a central piece of evidence in the Ruskin trial, the bridge itself is a great black “T,” and sea and sky are rendered in the same shade of turquoise blue. Night, we feel, will soon obliterate even the faint lights in the distance. “What is that mark on the right of the picture, like a cascade—” asked Ruskin’s counsel, “is it a firework?” “Yes,” Whistler replied.

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