There is a moment in Leon Edel’s life of Henry James when in the summer of 1885 the novelist received a letter from John Singer Sargent introducing three French friends who wished to be shown the sights of London. One of the three was the aesthete, dandy, and poet Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, who was to be the model for Proust’s Baron Charlus, and who chose to symbolize his artistic persona with the signature of the chauvesouris, the bat. Landed with so exotic a creature, James knew just what to do. He arranged a dinner at the Reform Club in Pall Mall with the one person in London Montesquiou longed to meet, the creator of the Peacock Room, the painter of the symphonies, harmonies, and nocturnes, who was to be the model for another character in Remembrance of Things Past, the painter Elstir. The man whom Montesquiou had heard so much about was “le fameux Jimmie,” the Butterfly, James McNeill Whistler.
The incident links the two great francophile American painters, Sargent and Whistler, with the most French of American novelists, and it serves to suggest the way in which the three weave in and out of each other’s lives. At the same time, the presence of the exquisite Montesquiou reminds us how different the three Americans really were from their European counterparts, how much more closely they resembled one another than they ever did the French Impressionists and Symbolists who were their contemporaries.
Earlier in the decade, James and Sargent each spent several months in Venice, Whistler more than a year. How each of them responded to the most beautiful city in the world is the subject of Hugh Honour and John Fleming’s The Venetian Hours of Henry James, Whistler and Sargent. It is an inspired idea for a book (a lavishly illustrated essay, really) to which the authors have appended four of James’s long travel pieces on Venice originally collected in 1909 in Italian Hours.
The first to arrive was Whistler, in September 1879. Commissioned by the London art dealers, the Fine Art Society, to make a dozen etchings of the city before he returned at Christmas, he in fact stayed fourteen months, bringing home a body of work which contained some of the most radically innovative things he had ever done, including about fifty etchings, one hundred pastels, and seven or eight paintings.
The work is the more exceptional when we consider the circumstances in which it was made. The year before, in November 1878, Whistler had been awarded a farthing’s damages in his notorious libel case against John Ruskin, who wrote that Whistler asked “two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” He had to pay the costs of his suit against Ruskin, but all might have been well had he not gone out of his way to make one particularly powerful enemy, Frederick Leyland, the man who had commissioned him to design the Peacock Room and who became infuriated by what one might call l’enlèvement on Whistler’s part of both his London residence and his spouse.
With this vengeful creditor determined to ruin him, Whistler declared bankruptcy in May of 1879. At the age of forty-five, then, one of the most remarkable artists that England might have cared to call its own found himself homeless and almost penniless. Outwardly, Whistler kept his spirits up. When Dante Gabriel Rossetti met him on a London street in August Rossetti thought “he was very spry indeed and announced himself to be in full work.”
But once in Venice, installed in mean lodgings, first near the Frari and later on the Riva degli Schiavoni, he allowed the mask to slip a little, complaining to his sister-in-law about the injustice of his having to live “in a sort of Opera Comique country when the audience is absent and the season is over.”
The winter of 1879–1880 was particularly cold in Venice. Whistler soon became ill and was confined to his rooms “because I rashly thought I might hasten matters by standing in the snow with a[n] [etching] plate in my hand and an icicle at the end of my nose.” In public Whistler was invariably brave and gallant and extremely amusing to be with. But a monotype portrait of him by the young American Charles Abel Corwin shows a sad, tired old man.
Any painter or writer coming to Venice in the second half of the nineteenth century had to face the overwhelming facts of Ruskin’s glorious prose evocations of the city and Turner’s vision of palaces luminously suspended between sky and water. Their Venice was a city of past glories, a spent and decaying maritime empire from which nineteenth-century Britain could take warning. Venice is, anyway, a city of façades, but Ruskin and Turner concentrated exclusively on its public face, the watery tourist trail along the Grand Canal.
By contrast, Whistler’s vision of Venice was essentially new. He was the first major artist to stray off the Grand Canal into the stagnant backwater canals to penetrate the secret cortiles and high bare salons of impoverished palazzos. He set out to paint the lagoon on hot moonless nights, when the only light gleams from the riding lamps swaying on the prows of silent gondolas. “I have learned to know a Venice in Venice,” he wrote, a Venice “that the others seem never to have perceived.” Had Whistler shown only the obscure and neglected aspect of Venice, one might accuse him of the unworthy motive of seeking mere originality. But in an etching such as Long Venice he did not avoid the sweeping views across the Grand Canal toward Piazza San Marco. And in one oil painting he does not flinch from showing us the ultimate tourist attraction, St. Mark’s itself.
Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold—St. Mark’s Venice (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff) is worth particular attention since it brings us close to the heart of Whistler’s enterprise. That very year the English painter John Bunney was again in Venice at Ruskin’s request, painting a vast, stone by stone visual record of the west front of St. Mark’s, a project which would take him six years to complete (Collection Guild of St. George, Reading University).
Bunney shows the building head on, from about halfway across the empty Piazza San Marco. The light is even, the color subdued, and the near photographic detail unmodified, as far as possible, by evidence of the artist’s presence. Whistler’s version is very different. He stands in roughly the same spot, the basilica directly in front of him, but so late at night that the lights from Florian’s and Quadri’s cafés on either side of the Piazza have been turned off. All we see is a cavernous black shadow looming up against the ink blue sky, the only color provided by the glint of golden mosaics and two sputtering flambeaux at the left.
It is a painting of the deepest mystery and poetry, but it is more. Nocturne: Blue and Gold is Whistler’s response to Bunney’s misguided pursuit of visual reality; it is also his answer to Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, and his continuation of the aesthetic debate raised at the recent trial. One day, while Bunney was working in the Piazza San Marco, Whistler came up behind him and succeeded in attaching a piece of paper to his back which read, “I AM TOTALLY BLIND.”1 In his lecture on art published under the title “Ten O’Clock,”2 delivered in February 1885, Whistler was referring to Ruskin’s disciples when he said,
The imitator is a poor kind of creature. If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer.
It would be easy to treat Whistler’s St. Mark’s as some sort of fantastical, proto-symbolist evocation of the soul of Venice. But it is in fact highly naturalistic, a scrupulously accurate view of what Whistler saw at that time of night. Unlike Bunney, Whistler even includes the ugly scaffolding on the west front of the basilica, the restoration of which was then outraging all of Europe and causing particular consternation among Whistler’s old adversaries Ruskin and Edward Burne-Jones.
Whistler was concerned to show Venice as a living, teeming city in a way that we simply do not recognize in the work of Turner or Ruskin. In masterly prints such as The Rialto or The Riva, Venice is humming with every variety of human life and activity. In one print showing the glass factory at Murano he depicts the light industry that was (barely) keeping the city alive. In the etching The Beggars their big staring eyes are neither sentimental nor picturesque, but show the effect of emaciation and fever.
In “Ten O’Clock” Whistler defines his own particular brand of aestheticism and underlines how radically it differed from the travesty of art for art’s sake popularized by Oscar Wilde and satirized by George Du Maurier:
[Art] is selfishly occupied with her own perfection only—having no desire to teach—seeking and finding the beautiful in all conditions and in all times, as did her high priest, Rembrandt, when he saw picturesque grandeur and noble dignity in the Jews’ quarter of Amsterdam, and lamented not that its inhabitants were not Greeks.
This is the moral basis of Whistler’s art. It is a realist’s creed which he took from his first real master, Gustave Courbet, and which, despite an experiment with purely decorative Japonisme in the 1860s, only deepened as he grew older. Indeed, the lessons learned in the late 1850s and early 1860s in Paris remained with Whistler all his life.
The swarming boulevards shown in The Riva and The Rialto remind us that the first important critic to write sympathetically about Whistler’s art was Baudelaire, and that Whistler never ceased to model himself on Baudelaire’s painter of modern life. The artists whom he took for his models were not Turner or Bonnington, but Canaletto and Guardi. And this is something that even that dumbest of critics, Whistler’s bugbear Harry Quilter, could not fail to see when the etchings were exhibited in London:
What has been done with cleverness so great as to be almost genius is to sketch the every-day aspect of canal, lagoon, and quay, and to give to those who have not seen the city some notion of how its wealth and poverty, grandeur and squalor, life and death, are so strangely mingled. This is a tangible Venice, not the Venice of a maiden’s fancies or a poet’s dreams.
At the same time, Whistler insists that art is not life. His prints are always signed outside the plate mark with the butterfly signature, and when trimming the margins of his prints he carefully cut round the butterfly tab so that it is both a part of the composition and outside it. In this way he emphasized that what we are looking at is above all an objet d’art, not a real view of nature.
Henry James arrived in Venice for his first extended stay in June 1881.3 The previous winter he had in all likelihood seen exhibitions of Whistler’s etchings and delicately colored pastels at the Fine Art Society. He therefore need hardly have left London to find the model for the dilapidated gray and pink palazzo of the Misses Bordereau in The Aspern Papers:
It was not particularly old, only two or three centuries; and it had an air not so much of decay as of quiet discouragement, as if it had rather missed its career. But its wide front, with a stone balcony from end to end of the piano nobile or most important floor, was architectural enough, with the aid of various pilasters and arches; and the stucco with which in the intervals it had long ago been endued was rosy in the April afternoon. It overlooked a clean, melancholy, unfrequented canal, which had a narrow riva or convenient footway on either side.
When, years later, in The Wings of the Dove, he evoked a different Venice, the Venice of the Palazzo Barbaro and the Grand Canal, he did so obliquely, as though he were aware that after Ruskin’s exalted prose poems, his readers already “knew” the city where Milly Theale comes to die. Just as Whistler asked the viewer to bring his own imagination to bear on the eloquent voids that perform so active a role in the compositions of his etchings and pastels, so James uses silence as a dramatic device, allowing his readers to picture for themselves the opulent settings he refuses to describe. Even as a writer, Whistler, one sometimes feels, saw Venice in ways that anticipated James. Here is Whistler, writing to his mother from Venice:
This evening the weather softened slightly and perhaps to-morrow may be fine—and then Venice will be simply glorious, as now and then I have seen it—after the wet, the colours upon the walls and their reflections in the canals are more gorgeous than ever—and with sun shining upon the polished marble mingled with rich toned bricks and plaster, [this] amazing city of palaces becomes really a fairyland…. The people with their gay gowns and handkerchiefs—and the many tinted buildings for them to lounge against or pose before, seem to exist especially for one’s pictures and to have no other reason for being! One could certainly spend years here and never lose the freshness that pervades the place!4
And here is James’s famous description toward the end of the Wings of the Dove of Venice in the autumn, after the first sea storms have cleared the air:
The weather changed, the stubborn storm yielded, and the autumn sunshine, baffled for many days, but now hot and almost vindictive, came into its own again and, with an almost audible paean, a suffusion of bright sound that was one with the bright colour, took large possession. Venice glowed and plashed and called and chimed again; the air was like a clap of hands, and the scattered pinks, yellows, blues, sea-greens, were like a hanging-out of vivid stuffs, a laying down of fine carpets.5
For James, too, Venice presented the artist with a moral problem. How does he reconcile the picturesque beauty of the city with the poverty which was an inseparable part of that beauty? Honour and Fleming have traced James’s preoccupation with this question in some of his articles in American magazines. At Torcello, James tells the readers of The Nation, “the poor lad who brought us the key of the cathedral was shaking with an ague, and his melancholy presence seemed to point the moral of forsaken nave and choir.” And again, “It is not easy to say that one would have [the Venetians] other than they are, and it certainly would make an immense difference should they be better fed.”
James had always admired Whistler’s prints, and eventually came to understand the paintings, but how much did he know of the man? In The Ambassadors, published in the year of Whistler’s death, 1903, he gave the sculptor Gloriani some of Whistler’s cosmopolitan charm, and the key scene in the novel (when Lambert Strether tells little Bilham to “Live all you can…”) is set in Gloriani’s garden, a minutely accurate description of Whistler’s Paris residence in the Rue du Bac.
What I believe James finally understood about Whistler and his art is that its real subject was very similar to one of James’s own cherished themes, the all-importance of the conscious aesthetic experience of life. In everything Whistler ever wrote or said about art he stressed that it was the artist’s role to choose, to discriminate, to cultivate, to make something out of nothing. Thus, in his London nocturnes he transformed the factory chimneys and power stations along the Thames into views every bit as lovely as those he found in Venice. In the “Ten O’Clock” lecture, he said:
And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us—then the wayfarer hastens home; the working man and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand, as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who, for once, has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone….
John Singer Sargent made the first of what were to become nearly annual visits to Venice in the autumn of 1880, fresh out of Carolus Duran’s atelier, at twenty-four a prodigy whom his friend Henry James would memorably describe as offering “the slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”6
According to his first biographer, Evan Charteris, Sargent’s Venice is
fashioned magically in stone, the glint of its waters, the reflections on its walls, its gondolas, the spars and sails of its shipping thrown against the background of a church, or its dazzling sky mirrored on the dancing facets of an agitated canal.
So far, he could be describing a work by Whistler. But Charteris perceptively goes on to say that
[Sargent] paints here, there, and everywhere with a deliberate nonchalance in the choice of his topics, taking things as they come; discovering things as it were by accident, but seeing them with an intensely personal outlook….
With his dazzling technique Sargent is almost too facile. He is like a tourist in his gondola with a new Instamatic, snapping sights more or less as he bumps into them, planning to sort it all out later when he gets back home. What for Whistler was the supreme importance of artistic selection, the sense that the artist chooses his subject because he has discovered its innate pictorial harmony, has no relevance for Sargent’s work as a view painter. In his hundreds of Venetian watercolors he seems to draw no distinction between the visual interest offered by conventionally picturesque subjects on the Grand Canal and those provided by nondescript courtyards and alleyways.
Sargent came to Venice to paint a series of studies which could then be worked up into a picture suitable for exhibition at the Salon. When, like James and Whistler, he plunged into the ragged back streets and poorer quarters to study the bead stringers or water carriers, the figures somehow always look like models posing in the studio. With one or two exceptions (Honour and Fleming describe Sargent’s Whistlerian Venise par temps gris, a view of the Riva degli Schiavoni from the windows of the Casa Jankovitz, as perfectly capturing the “sad, empty, lost, ‘out of season’ atmosphere of the city”), Sargent does not bear comparison with James or Whistler, as an interpreter of the city.
What is it that makes Whistler’s paintings look so fresh and Sargent’s so contrived? The answer, once again, partly lies in Whistler’s early training in Paris. Then, he had come under the influence of the theories of the French painter Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Lecoq advocated an anti-academic discipline of training the memory in art whereby the artist studied a scene until it was learned “by heart,” then returned to his studio to paint it. Otto Bacher, an American artist who was with Whistler in Venice describes the method in practice. Night after night Whistler
watched the gondolas pass, singly and in groups, with lanterns waving in the darkness, without making a stroke with brush or pen. Then he would return to his rooms and paint the scene, or as much as he could remember, going again and again to refresh some particular impression.
By eliminating (or at least reducing) his dependence on sketches Whistler sought to minimize the distance between his emotional response sur le motif, and the direct expression of that emotion in paint. He also achieved a sophisticated balance between naturalism and decoration, the sense that, while being “real” views of nature, the paintings, like the etchings, are above all objets d’art.
Still, comparing Whistler and Sargent in Venice is unfair because Sargent was primarily a portrait painter, and it is he who shows us an aspect of Venice in which Whistler had no artistic interest, the cultivated expatriate life of the city. Honour and Fleming introduce us to a colony of colorful American hostesses including Katherine de Kay Bronson in her small palace at the entrance to the Grand Canal, and the overexcited Boston grand dame Isabella Stewart Gardner, who often took the magnificent Palazzo Barbaro for the summer. But above all there is the family who owned the Barbaro, Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Curtis, whom Sargent painted in his wonderful An Interior in Venice, now in the Royal Academy. In this throwback to the eighteenth-century conversation piece, Sargent shows the Curtis family in the painted and gilded salon of the palace, shutters closed against the glare of the sun, the light reflected from the canal playing on the ceiling, making the four of them look like tropical fish in an aquarium.
Here Sargent is at his most Jamesian, using pose and gesture to identify these people as a “good” American family abroad. The son, Ralph, in white duck trousers, casually perches on a carved Italian console table. His father carries on reading the newspaper with an informality unthinkable outside his own family circle.
One is reminded of how Isabel Archer finally understands the true nature of Gilbert Osmond’s intimacy with Madame Merle when she comes upon the pair in her Roman drawing room and finds the woman standing and the man seated, and even more tellingly, knowing each other so well they can be together without feeling the need to speak. It is no wonder that James himself desperately wished to buy An Interior in Venice from Sargent.
This same Mr. Curtis, Honour and Fleming tell us, had left Boston under a little cloud, having been arrested in Boston on the charge of tweaking the nose of a fellow commuter. But Sargent is engaged in creating a myth of cultivated leisure, not in exploring character. The aristocratic Curtises are shown to have all the time in the world. They are like Olympian gods (or indeed like characters in Henry James’s fiction), interesting to us precisely because they seem for a moment to exist above such considerations as money or work, and to be living their lives on a higher, more fully conscious plane of existence.
Honour and Fleming bring their deep knowledge of Venice and its inhabitants to every page of Venetian Hours, enlivening their text with color reproductions of paintings, photographs, and caricatures, several of which they have discovered in private Venetian collections. Moreover, they never lose sight of the reason for writing the book in the first place, which is to cast new light on the art of James, Whistler, and Sargent by looking at them together.
I wish I could say the same for Gordon Fleming’s James Abbott McNeill Whistler: A Life. But Fleming, a former professor of English literature, shows so little interest in Whistler’s art that one wonders why on earth he was curious about Whistler’s life. He piles fact upon fact about that life, but entirely misses its real drama, which lies in the work. As for the critical judgments, I will just give one example because it brings us back to Henry James’s dinner at the Reform Club. Whistler and Montesquiou predictably became fast friends, and in 1891 Whistler painted the full length portrait Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, one of the masterpieces of late nineteenth-century portraiture, and today one of the glories of the Frick collection in New York. This work Fleming lumps among Whistler’s “minor efforts of no great significance.” As the Master himself might have said: “Amazing!”
October 24, 1991
Allen Staley, The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape (Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 157. ↩
“Ten O’Clock” republished in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (Putnam, 1890). ↩
James had been to Venice twice before, but each time very briefly, in 1869 and 1872. ↩
Katharine A. Lochnan, The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler (Yale University Press, 1984), p. 187. ↩
Henry James, The Wings of the Dove, (Penguin, 1986), p. 385. ↩
Henry James, “The Painter’s Eye,” Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts (Harvard University Press, 1956), p. 218. ↩