James McNeill Whistler
James McNeill Whistler; drawing by David Levine

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.

He carried out his program more or less for ten years, but the strange thing is that despite Whistler’s proclaimed belief in the superiority of French art, his contacts with what was going on in Paris at the time, and his attempted frenchification of himself, Whistler’s own painting shows little French influence and was to become ever more fatally anglicized as time went on.

Undoubtedly, Whistler’s decision to leave America for Europe (where he had grown up) was motivated by a desire to study and exhibit there for a few years, so that he could return eventually and present himself to his compatriots as an artist who had acquired sophistication and prestige. For there was no worthwhile art education to be had in America in the 1850s, and when he set forth Whistler knew nothing more about painting than he had absorbed casually between the ages of nine and sixteen during visits to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, to Hampton Court, or to museums in London. As soon as he reached Paris in November, 1855, therefore, Whistler signed on for classes at the Ecole Impériale de Dessin, and six months later moved to the freer, but none the less academic, atelier of Charles Gleyre, where Monet, Sisley, and Renoir were to meet less than ten years later.

There, working on his own but under supervision, Whistler soon became bored with what Stanley Weintraub calls “the austere regimen of daily attendance” and began a process of intensive self-education, going to exhibitions of contemporary art in galleries, visiting museums, and copying (an additional source of revenue) famous paintings in the Louvre or the Luxembourg. It was the enjoyable rather than the hard way of learning the rudiments of his future profession. Yet Whistler may not have been quite as much “the idle apprentice” as his friend George du Maurier later made him out to have been in his novel Trilby (1894). Nevertheless, another close artist friend of Whistler’s in Paris at this time, Edward Poynter, later president of the Royal Academy, certainly made no bones about saying that Whistler had never lived up to his potential abilities because “the devil wouldn’t work!”

Once he had finished what he considered his basic schooling, Whistler decided that it was time to conquer London, where he could live in the comfortable Belgravia home of his well-to-do brother-in-law Haden, use a good address, work, discuss art, and meet the wealthy, the famous, and those with artistic interests. It was at this stage of his life, 1858-1859, that Whistler discovered the secret of making other people work for himself and his fame. Thus Haden was coerced into finding purchasers for Whistler’s set of twelve etchings of French and German scenes, into entertaining his French and English artist friends, and into purchasing paintings by all of them.

Whistler also discovered, as he shuttled from then on between the two cities, how easy and profitable it could be to play off against each other his alternating successes and failures, in Paris and London, for the sake of improving his reputation. As an instance, when his first major genre scene, At the Piano (1859), had been refused for the Salon, he took it to London, where it was accepted for the Royal Academy, attracted favorable notices, and was bought by John Phillip, a Royal Academician. This was the springboard from which, as an unknown young man, Whistler made his sudden and surprising entree into the artistic, intellectual, and social worlds of London, an entree which coincides with his ceasing to be purely and simply an artist and with his beginning to live two or three simultaneous lives. The rot set in early. When Whistler then tried to play the same trick in Paris it did not work. As a matter of fact, he had to wait another twenty years before he was made welcome in Paris.

The significance of Whistler’s At the Piano, like that of Degas’s portrait of the Belleli family, which it resembles but none the less anticipated, lies in its being a scene involving human beings which holds together purely by virtue of its formal composition and tonal relationships. There is no narrative action and no moral is involved: this detached presentation of a genre scene was to be an artistic innovation of the 1860s. That Whistler brought it off, despite his inexperience, seems to have been due to a happy conjunction of inspiration, concentration, and beginner’s luck. For when Whistler tried to follow it up with new subjects found in London, his inspiration failed him, he lost his artistic direction, and he was defeated by problems of technique.

The Music Room (1860), which followed, is a strange and more ambitious composition with a mirror-image, a moving figure in silhouette, and fussy patterned chintz, which anticipates in a way interiors by Monet and Renoir of the later 1860s, as well as by Bonnard and Vuillard of the 1890s. But compositionally it is incoherent and tonally ill-adjusted. And that despite much reworking and determined attempts to capture the placement and attitudes of the figures convincingly. Similarly with Wapping on Thames (1860-1864), where the three foreground figures are badly placed and anatomically distorted, while the background is in and out of focus and incoherent. The White Girl (1862) is another awkward canvas, which was turned down for the Academy and the Salon, but let into the Salon des Refusés, where it is said to have had a “succès d’engouement.”

There followed a succession of would-be major works such as The Last of Old Westminster (1862), which has no focus and is untidy, the Lange Lijzen (1864), the Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine (1863-1864), the Balcony (1864-1867), Three Figures (1868), and The Artist in his Studio (1868), which all suffer from the same faults of being ill-drawn, overworked, awkward, uncomfortably mannered, and stylistically inconsistent. By this time Whistler’s lack of experience as a painter and ineptness as a draftsman were proving a terrible handicap to him, so that for several years running he had nothing new which was finished in time to exhibit at the Academy or the Salon. And in those days an absence from such official exhibitions mattered to the artist.

Part of Whistler’s trouble was that, in a blend of innocence, ambition, and despair, he was trying to produce great art by the “instant” process of imitating different and contradictory styles, mixing Courbet with Velázquez and the Pre-Raphaelites with the Japanese. But by 1867 he was obliged to recognize his stylistic confusion, and then to regret that he had not been content to rely solely on his “own natural gifts.” What, however, seemed “natural” to Whistler? He says simply, “When I threw everything slapdash onto the canvas, knowing that instinct and beautiful color would pull me through.” Is that how a “great” artist talks?

Now it was too late. No matter how much he longed at this stage to be himself again, Whistler could not go backward and free himself from an acquired sophistication. But he did find for himself a clever, if evasive, solution to his problems through painting vague, misty river scenes in drab colors, with factories, smoke, stars; fireworks, against twilight or night skies, the whole effect being flat and without depth. However, it must at once be made clear that these are not Impressionist paintings avant la lettre, as they have so often been called. They are at best loosely painted attempts at evoking unfocused visions of the atmosphere which envelops London’s grimy industrial landscape.

“As the light fades and the shadows deepen,” Whistler once explained, “all the petty and exacting details vanish; everything trivial disappears, and I see things, as they are, in great, strong masses. The buttons are lost but the shadow remains; the shadow is lost but the picture remains. And that, night cannot efface from the painter’s imagination.” An Impressionist painter tried to capture just what he saw at the moment, in all the blaze and colored subtleties of light and shadow. Therein lies the difference.

Whistler’s technical and visual difficulties generated his purely aesthetic conception of pictures as Arrangements, Harmonies, Variations, Nocturnes, or Symphonies, compositions contrived and elaborated away from the subject. This pictorial conception justified his neglect of exactitude, individual identity, and resemblance to actuality. “They are merely first beginnings of pictures, differing from ordinary first beginnings in having no composition,” wrote the critic Philip Hamerton in the mid-1870s. However, we should not overlook the fact that Whistler’s pictorial notions opened up a path of development which led, twenty years later, to the Aesthetic Movement, the Symbolists, and the Nabis, a fact which is more meaningful than the actual paintings he executed, especially after 1870.

The decade of the 1870s was a period in Whistler’s life of rapidly increasing arrogance, of considerable social activity, of a desperate pursuit of golden guineas to sustain his extravagant life, and of constant frustrations and embarrassments, which ended ingloriously in his overreaching himself in the garish Peacock Room and then being sold up as a bankrupt. Meanwhile Whistler did everything he could to encourage “the buzz of publicity” which surrounded his every action, for he thrived on it. Along the way, Whistler had serious disputes with various patrons such as Frederick Leyland, William Graham, Sir Henry Cole, Lord Redesdale, and Henry Irving, as well as W.C. Alexander, who had commissioned portraits of their wives, themselves, or their children.

Although he had sometimes received money in advance, Whistler either held back on delivering the portrait or was obliged to interrupt his work because after fifty or sixty abortive sittings he was still not content or the sitter was too exhausted to go on. Frequently, therefore, in order to finish it Whistler had to borrow the clothes and put them on his mistress or a model. But as often as not he still continued to fail and either had to forego a large check and keep the canvas, or else refund an advance. In either case he usually antagonized some patron or influential lady, and the news rapidly spread. To try to redeem his sinking reputation, Whistler put on a small retrospective exhibition of Nocturnes and Portraits at the Flemish Gallery in Pall Mall in 1874. But his gamble failed, because the critics either ignored the show or commented on it unfavorably. On the other hand, during these years Whistler completed two masterpieces—the portraits of his Mother (1867-1872) and of Carlyle (1872-1873)—which are virtually the only works a critic need take seriously into consideration in judging Whistler’s artistic stature.

Also during the 1870s, Whistler initiated the practice, which he was to exploit even more later on, of designing his own invitation card and catalogue for each exhibition and of making an aesthetic color “arrangement” within the gallery to form an appropriate setting for his works. Any trick would do. The self-dramatization to enhance the personality and mask the artistic inadequacy was well under way. But by 1877 Whistler’s finances were in a shambles, he had not appeared at the Royal Academy or the Salon in several years, his studio was full of unfinished, unsalable canvases, while day after day bailiffs were knocking at the door. It was at that point that Ruskin, who was slightly mad anyway, published his famous libel on a painting by Whistler on view at the newly opened Grosvenor Gallery, and thereby initiated the lawsuit of which the expense finally made Whistler insolvent. It was May, 1879, and he was aged forty-five. Severely mauled, and a prey to fears and doubts, Whistler fled to Venice and remained away from London for more than a year.

Whistler crept back into London late in 1880, bringing in his baggage a number of etchings of Venetian subjects and a large group of pastels. These he quickly put on exhibition at vastly higher prices than he had asked previously, but they sold well and provided him with much needed pocket money. By this time, Whistler had given up all thought of ever returning to America because he had no call to do so. Pictorially he had no need of his native land, moreover in America the life of an artist—especially an eccentric and pugnacious one—was still tough, convention-ridden, and precarious.

Whistler had no friends or patrons in America at this date, his European reputation was not that great, and he would have found it difficult to get profitable commissions that suited him. What is more, he would certainly not have been able to live on debts and credit as easily as he managed in Europe. His mother, who was devoted to him, had escaped during the Civil War and settled in London in 1863 (she was to die in 1881). Also by the mid-1880s American art collectors such as Mrs. Havemeyer, Mrs. Gardner, and Charles Freer began coming to London and made purchases in Whistler’s studio, while articles about him and his work appeared more and more frequently from then on in the American press. In 1881, the first of Whistler’s paintings to be seen in America, his Mother, was successfully shown in Philadelphia and New York, though it was not sold. In fact he did not dispose of it till 1891, when it was acquired for the Musée du Luxembourg, at the same time as Glasgow (in a gesture of Scottish nationalism) acquired the Carlyle, these two being the first of his paintings to enter museums. But Whistler never sold a painting to a museum in England during his lifetime.

The 1880s was the period of which Whistler boasted that once he had fashioned a reputation for himself as a serious artist he would have “crowds competing for sittings” and would “paint all the fashionables.” He tried hard to fulfill his boast, but to no avail. Whistler led a more fashionably social life than before; he surrounded himself with a band of young followers, who slaved for him and called him Master, while advertising his presence wherever he went; he rattled the second- and third-class gold medals he had been awarded at the Salon and elsewhere; he took on status as a quasi-English artist on being elected president of a despised group of hacks and amateurs called the Society of British Artists, and then by a brashly direct approach to the Queen succeeded in getting for them the grant of Royal patronage.

Whistler even tried to highlight his artistic brilliance by publishing malicious, bombastic but witty pamphlets attacking his patrons, well-wishers, and critics, while putting himself in an even more favorable light. But for all that, Whistler painted less and also less well in these later years. He repeated himself badly and his work lacked conviction, brilliance, and artistic worth. The figures in Whistler’s portraits—Lady Meux, Lady Archibald Campbell, Théodore Duret, Pablo de Sarasate, Robert de Montesquiou, George Vanderbilt, and his own wife Trixie—are all like ghosts, stuffed shirts, or inflated plastic mannequins, while Whistler’s landscapes, etchings, and late mythological figures are uninventive, boring, and often grotesque.

Nevertheless, Whistler, who suffered bitterly from the generally unfavorable view of his work taken by the critics, worked away incessantly at his campaign of self-aggrandizement, and by the 1890s it was paying off in terms of the prices he could ask. So he moved temporarily to Paris to accumulate a final bouquet of praise and honors. Yet when Whistler died in 1903, he was a lonely, half-forgotten figure in the background of London’s art world. He had lived on and off for forty years in what he once called “the land of important ignorance and Beadledom,” he had made his adopted home there, and he thought of himself as Victorian England’s greatest artist. But as he lay on his deathbed, no friends or representatives of official art bodies with which he had been associated came to pay their respects.

What then remains of Whistler’s life work for the art historian to evaluate? The specter of a butterfly-scorpion; two masterpieces of painting and a not enormous quantity of unimpressive and indifferent works; an insidious aesthetic influence; a preponderance of highfalutin claims; and memories of a dominating, colorful, and largely assumed personality—ham actor, farceur, poseur, snob, bully—who, as his needs and mood dictated, could be charming, witty, diverting, grouchy, cruel, and even destructive. Where is the evidence of greatness and originality as an artist in all of this?

Perhaps, after all, Swinburne was not far wrong when he called Whistler “a brilliant amateur.” For Whistler, as soon as his technique failed him, was ready to sacrifice the artistic excellence and significance of his work to social ambition and a false academic status. Whistler was incapable of planned and considered work, incapable too of prolonged effort, so he failed to live up to the promise of his first few works. J.B. Yeats pointed an accusing finger in the right direction when he wrote in 1914 that Whistler “thought that whatever he chose to do was good enough because he did it.” And alas Whistler’s idea of himself was far in excess of his abilities as they are revealed in his paintings or engraved work. Ultimately, therefore, we can shuffle Whistler off the stage of art history, in a few lines, as a gentleman-painter of small importance.

These reflections on Whistler are prompted by reading the two very different books about him by Weintraub and Roy McMullen. Weintraub’s lengthy volume is a true biography based on a methodical re-examination of the evidence and much intelligent research. The author’s characterization of Whistler is well documented and thought out, his comments on his motives and actions are sound and balanced, and at last there emerges a more realistic image of Whistler the man, deprived of the pseudo-halo which the Pennells placed over his head.

This is truly a welcome change from the schmoozy, artistically slanted volumes by Pearson, Laver, and Sutton, which are all that has been published in the past forty years, for in these Whistler’s artistic wizardry was taken for granted and the unpleasing and aggressive aspects of his character glossed over. Weintraub tells his readers just what the man was really like. Weintraub’s style of writing is lively, he has discovered much new biographical material to enliven his story, and it is only when Whistler becomes a bore during the last fifteen years of his life that Weintraub’s text loses something of its readability. McMullen’s volume, on the other hand, is an ill-considered, careless, ill-written rehash of much that has been said before. Mistakenly the author feels himself equipped to write more about Whistler’s art than about the man and his life.

This Issue

August 8, 1974