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Portrait of the Artist as Combatant



Rob Hardy


Among the artists who were the most public of personalities, surely a top rank has to go to James McNeill Whistler. He clubbed, he wrote to the papers, he dressed to be seen, and he lectured and wrote about his inspirations, aims, and theories of art. He was a good friend and a sympathetic instructor to many, and yet he had a cranky and viperish side that led to wilful destruction of friendships. He had a long succession of models who were mistresses and dams to his progeny, until his late-in-life marriage which was romantic and supportive. The contradictions of this bustling character are well told in Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake (Yale University Press) by Donald E. Sutherland, who has drawn from previously private correspondence by the artist as well as the voluminous writings by and about him. No one questions the significance of Whistler the artist now, but he was a scrappy, striving workman who took himself and his work with seriousness and was liable to punch anyone in the nose who also failed to do so. 




Whistler was born in 1834 in Massachusetts, but his father was an engineer who got a lucrative contract to work on the Russian railroads. The father had been at West Point, and had artistic leanings, but engineering paid the bills. Whistler began studying art in St. Petersburg, even within the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, where his talent was early recognized. The father died young, however, and Whistler's mother took the family back to the United States. The young Whistler was not inclined toward the military, but his family connections got him placed at West Point. It is easy to imagine that he and the Military Academy were a poor match; he drew, hid in the library to read Dickens and Cooper, stayed out late at taverns, contracted venereal disease, and got a high total of demerits. Colonel Robert E. Lee, in charge of the Academy, seems to have had a soft spot for Whistler and remembered him fondly years later (and Whistler was eventually, although in Europe, to have leanings toward the Confederacy), but could do nothing when Whistler failed a chemistry exam. Years later he liked to joke, "Had silicon been a gas, I would have been a major general." He had loved being at the Academy, and felt it was always an important part of his life; he would imagine in his work on his art or in battling philistines that he was engaged in some sort of "scientific and West Point kind of fighting." 




His fortunes were little better in his first job, for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington. The work at least introduced him to the art of etching, and he was to perfect his skills so that he would eventually be recognized as the greatest of etchers since Rembrandt. He decided to become an artist, and using a small legacy from the estate of his father, he went on to Paris to study. He prowled the Louvre and was infatuated with the masterworks he saw there. He was also charmed by the romance of living like a true Bohemian artist. After four years he shifted to London and began his concentration on portraiture. It was to be the start of a lifetime of painting pictures that were ambitious but imperfectly understood by many, and of trying to get the pictures well displayed and well spoken about in order for the artist to make his living. Whistler never was good with money, whether it was streaming in or not, but he was profoundly serious about his art, driving himself with the discipline that was never appreciated by those who only saw him as a flaneur. The reception of his 1852 painting The White Girl was typical. The old guard at the Royal Academy wanted a painting to tell a story and even better to point a moral. To them, Whistler's painting (in which his model and mistress Jo Hiffernan looks out, wearing a white dress before a white background and standing on a bearskin rug) looked bizarre and incomplete, and enraged them to a degree it is hard for us to understand now. When a sympathetic critic called it "a symphony in white," Whistler renamed it Symphony in White, No. 1, and attuned to the link between music and art, began calling his paintings symphonies, nocturnes, and harmonies. It did not impress the old school critics that he was paying more attention to color and pattern rather than to narrative. 




In fact, Whistler took to the papers when he understood that critics were making a connection between the painting and the popular novel of two years before, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Whistler wanted the world to know that he had not illustrated a story, he was not interested in the circumstances of the girl standing in the painting (and he was never interested in his art making a political or social statement), but that there was only in the painting composition and color. The critics were impertinent in connecting any story to the painting, Whistler felt, and he regarded it as his duty to have them see the painting right. This was a bombshell: "Respectable artists did not write letters to editors or publicly defend their work as Whistler had done, at least not in England." Making public frays became a Whistler specialty. He may not have laid hands on Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne, or his brother-in-law and mentor Francis Seymour Haden, but he fell out with them and many others (including patrons) after spells of friendship. He enjoyed a physical dust-up with a cabbie here or a fellow boat passenger there, and in 1889 there was a well-publicized episode at his Hogarth Club when after an exchange of insults he kicked a fellow artist in the behind. In a letter to his sister-in-law, he crowed, "There is nothing like a good fight!" 




His most famous fight was a legal one, against the most prominent art critic in England, John Ruskin. Whistler painted Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket in 1875, a black canvas spotted with fireworks. It brought Ruskin's retort in 1878, "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Thus aesthetics and economics of art, realms both dear to Whistler, led him to sue Ruskin for libel. Among the questions to be decided were how much a painting could be valued by the amount of time and physical work the artist had spent on it. Ruskin could never understand such a minimalist work, or one that didn't give proper moral instruction. The courtroom became a debating chamber for the two sides, and when the speeches were all over, the jury took Whistler's side, but awarded him only a farthing in damages, no compensation at all to his huge legal fees. And Ruskin had to reflect that his venomous words had been determined to be worth but a farthing. The legal fracas kept Whistler's name in the papers, and after the decision, he used (and abused) the trial transcripts as a start to his autobiographical work with the revealing title The Gentle Art of Making Enemies




Whistler would have objected to the Mother's Day sentimentality people have attached to his most famous work, which he called Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, but which everyone knows as "Whistler's Mother." The painting is nearly monochromatic except for the luminous face of the subject, and since it was an "arrangement" rather than a "valentine," the Royal Academy nearly rejected it. Years later, hearing praise of the painting, Whistler replied in a way that calls into question his insistence that his arrangements and symphonies had no emotional content: "Yes, one does like to make one's mummy just as nice as possible!" It was one of the few times, too, that he made a joke about art. He felt himself in a scientific profession, and driving himself hard to perfection within it, he didn't use his wit or banter about such a serious subject. He was absolutely serious about his work, and others sometimes were mislead by his dandyism or his free play of wit. The seriousness, and the wit, are on full show in this fine, comprehensive biography. 




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