On the Make in Paris and London

Victorian Outsider: A Biography of J.A.M. Whistler

by Roy McMullen
Dutton, 307 pp., $10.00

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…

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