James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Victorian Painter. Biog. Biog. II Gallery Nocturne in Black and Gold Print Nocturne 24" Canvas Store Search Site
L I F E
Oscar Wilde to Whistler: 'I wish I had said that.'
Whistler replied, 'You will, Oscar, you will!'
- James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Mass., and attended West Point Miltary Academy, 1851-4. Failing there, he worked as a Navy cartographer, which at least taught him the technique of etching, before going to Paris to study painting in 1855. There he worked in Gleyre's studio (1856), met Fantin-Latour and Degas and was influenced by Courbet, as may be seen in Au Piano, rejected by the Salon in 1859 and exhibited privately by Whistler, following Courbet's example. In 1859 he moved to London, but he continued to visit Paris frequently as well as going - for no known reason - to Valparaiso in 1866.
In 1876/7 he had a quarrel (in which he was entirely in the wrong) over the decoration of the 'Peacock Room' in a London house (now in Washington, Freer Gall.), and in 1877 Ruskin wrote of his Nocturne in Black and Gold (now in Detroit) that it was 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face'. Whistler sued him and won, in 1878, damages of a farthing but his own costs ruined him and he went to Venice in 1879 and in 1880 to make a series of etchings; since his mastery of etching was never dsputed even by bitter critics of his paintings, he hoped to recoup himself in this way. He lived as a dandy and had a deserved reputation as a mordant wit, well able to keep up with his friend Oscar Wilde: after one sally Wilde is supposed to have said admiringly, 'I wish I had said that.' Whistler replied, 'You will, Oscar, you will!'
The early influence of Fantin-Latour and Courbet was succeeded to some extent by that of Monet, who was one of Whistler's fellow-exhibitors in the Salon des Refuses of 1863, but an even more marked influence in the 1860s was that of Japanese art, then finding its way to Europe and being discovered by the more advanced Parisians. Strangely, there is also some influence discernible from English academic painters like Albert Moore, particularly in the colour 'arrangements' which are really studies in the juxtaposition of closely related tones and colours. Whistler liked to emphasize the aesthetic nature of his pictures in conscious reaction against the domination of the subject in Victorian painting, hence his choice of titles like Symphony or Nocturne.
The best collections of his work are in Washington (Freer Gall.) and Glasgow (Univ.); other pictures are in Cardiff, Glasgow (Gall.), London (Tate), Ottawa, Paris (Mus. d'Orsay) and several American museums. His etchings are well represented in the Royal Coll. and London (BM, V&A), and in American print rooms.
- Source: The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin Reference Books)
L I F E
- To paint a self-portrait is an act of self-analysis which needs courage, even if you are one of the great portrait painters of your time, like James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Indeed, all of Whistler's sitters needed courage, for when exhibited their likeness would be transformed not into gods, goddesses, saints or muses as in 18th-century portraits, but into 'Symphonies', 'Harmonies', or 'Arrangemenrs' to emphasize their purely 'formal values'. The adventuress Lady Meux, categorized by Whistler as Arrangement in Black No. 5, possessed courage in abundance, having clawed her way up the society ladder from working as a prostitute at the Casino de Venise in Holborn to marrying the scion of a wealthy family of brewers, despite strenous efforts by the Meux family to discourage the match. Dressed to kill in a low-cut, figure-hugging, black velvet evening gown ablaze with diamonds and relieved by a full-length white sable stole, she embodies not the stuffy age of Queen Victoria but the more daring world of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. Artist and sitter both deserved and fully understood each other, in a definitive demonstration of the 'swagger portrait'.
Whistler's most famous portrait must surely be his Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: The Artist's Mother, purchased by the French government twenty years after it was painted. J.-K Huysmans wrote of it in La Revue Independante in 1884: 'It was disturbing, mysterious, of a different colour from those we are accustomed to seeing, Also the cnvas was scarcely covered, its grain almost invisible; the compatibility of the grey and the truly inky black was a joy to the eye, surprised by those unusual harmonies; it was, perhaps, English painting Baudelairized, lunar, real painting.
- In 1891 Whistler was invited to hang the annual Liverpool exhibition. Characteristically, he played a pratical joke in his arrangement of the typical Victorian narrative paintings submitted, which he described as featuring 'the great British baby'. He wrote:
You know, the Academy baby by the dozen had been sent in, and I got them all in my gallery - and in the centre, at one end, I placed the birth of the baby - splendid - and opposite, the baby with the mustard pot, and opposite that the baby with the puppy - and in the centre, on one side, the baby ill, doctor holding its pulse, mother weeping. On the other, by the door, the baby dead - the baby's funeral - baby from the cradle tot he grave - baby in heaven - babies of all kinds and shapes all along the line ... and on varnishing day, in came the artists - each making for his own baby - amazing! ... And they all shook my hand and thanked me - and went to look - at other men's babies - and then they had babies in front of them, babies behind them, babies to the right of them, babies to the left of them.
Such displays can be all too vividly imagined, and Whistler's little joke acutely highlights a dilemma which confronts any artist who portrays children, Their work is always open to accusations of mawkish sentimentality, or more sinister repressed motivations.
- In 1876 and 1877 Whistler, whose signature was a butterfly, painted the most controversial of all murals created in the Victorian age, now known as the Peacock Room. The subject arose from a commission to decorate a dining-room for the millionaire shipping magnate, Frederick Leyland. Lined with red sixteenth-century Spanish leather, the room was designed to show off a collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain and Whistler's own paintings Rose and Silver: La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine (1864/5) and, facing it, The Three Girls (1867). Starting with such good intentions, everything, from the client's point of view, went wrong when Whistler painted a lush pattern on the leather based on peacock's feathers, a theme which rapidly took over the concept of the whole room, culminating in a portrayal of a proud artist peacock shrieking at a mean patron peacock scraping up silver shillings. This was a reference to Leyland paying Whistler not in guineas (twenty-one shillings) but pounds (twenty shillings). Gentlemen and artists were paid in guineas, tradesman in pounds, and Whistler chose to see this as an insult.After many vicissitudes the whole room is now on permanent display in Washington's Freer Gallery of Art.
- Although French Impressionism made a great impact in the last twenty years of the Victorian age, Whistler's stormy career created even more controversy and upheavel. The Peacock Room incident embodies the central tenet in Whistler's aesthetic credo - the supremacy of the artist's opinion over that of collectors or patrons. The theme recurs in the dispute between Whistler and Ruskin over the latter's criticism of Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, which culminated in the notorious libel case of 1878. The first shot in this famous battle occured in 1873, when John Ruskin, then Slade Professor of Art, delivered his third lecture on Tuscan art. Always prone to digression, he alluded to a painting by Whistler exhibited in 1872, entitled Harmony in Grey, saying:
I never saw anything so impudent on the walls of any exhibition in any country
as last year in London. It was a daub, professing to be 'a harmony in pink and
white' (or some such nonsence); absolute rubbish, and which had taken about a
quarter of an hour to scrawl or daub - it had no pretence to be called painting.
The price asked was two hundred and fifty guineas.
Whistler did not immediately learn of this critical tirade. But when Ruskin four years later returned to the attack, directing his ire upon anothe rpaintingm a pyrotechnic display of awesome power was to be ignited. The exploding fireworks of the trial would burn both artist and critic.
For 30 years Ruskin had dominated art criticism. The artists he supported all conformed to his own highly personal interpretation of the rule of 'truth to Nature'. This enabled him to accept both the minute painstaking detail of Millais and the subjective abstraction of Turner. Rushkin's opinions could make or break the reputation of an artist. In Letter 79 of his personal periodical Fors Clavigera, published in July 1877, he wrote an extensive critique of the opening exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in June 1877. Tissot was chided for his 'mere coloured photographs of society', but Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold was decribed in words which have become renowned for their offensiveness:
For Mr Whistler's own sake, no less for the protection of the purchaser, Sir
Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the
ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful
imposture. 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
Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, and the date of the trial was set for November 1878. The case proved an important turning point in the history of art, for it marked the beginning of aspects of art as various as conceptualism and abstraction.
In the two days of legal argument at the trial, pictures were unceremoniously passed from hand to hand in the heavy fog which deepened the gloom of the candle-lit court. One painting hit the head of a balding gentleman, and appeared liable to fall out of its frame, before it reached the witness box. Whistler, on neing asked whether the painting was his, inserted his monocle, and paused theatrically before responding: 'Well, it was once. But it won't be much longer if it goes on in this way.' The ineviatable jokes about paintings being upside down or the right way up were made, notably concerning Nocturne in Blue and Silver (1872-3).
Ruskin, not present owing to a nervous breakdown, was, significantly, represented by the establishment figure of the Attorney General, Sir John Holker. The cut and thrust of the cross-examination brings the case vividly to life:
Holker: Did it take much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? ...
How long do you take to knock off one of your pictures?
Whistler: Oh, I 'knock one off' possibly in a couple of days - (laughter) - one day to do the work and another to finish it.
Holker: The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?
Whistler: No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime (applause)
Whistler won his case but was awarded the derisory sum of one farthing and no costs. It ruined him financially and he was declared bankrupt for the sum of £3,000, which forced him to sell the White House, his studio in Chelsea, designed by his friend the architect E.W. Godwin. Indeed, both plaintiff and defendant suffered as the result of the case. Although his popularity was so great that his costs were paid by a public subscription organized by the Fine Art Society, Ruskin endured much mental distress even before the case came to trial, retiring to Coniston where n February 1878 he sank into his first major attack of insanity.
It was, however, imossible to depress Whistler for long, and soon after his bankruptcy his fortunes improved. The Fine Art Society, with remarkable evenhandedness, advanced him the £150 necessary to take him to Venice for three months to produce a set of twelve etchings, with the option of buying the plates for £700 on his return. While in Venice Whistler also painted some relatively little-known Nocturnes in oils, of which The Lagoon, Venice: Nocturne in Blue and Silver is a fine example. His pupil Sickert recorded Whistler using large housepainter's brushes (favoured by 20th-century action painters) for the large sweeps of colour in such works.
Whistler returned to London in November 1880, and the Venice set was exhibited at the Fine Art Society the following month in one of the carefully orchestrated settings which Whistler loved, followed by a Venetian pastels show in which white and yellow were the dominant notes. The wall was white with yellow hangings, the floor covered with pale yellow matting, the couches pale yellow serge, and the cane-bottomed chairs were painted yellow. There were yellow flowers in yellow pots and a white and yellow livery for the attendants, who at the private view wore yellow socks and yellow neckties. Whistler distributed yellow favours, 'wonderful little butterflies', to his friends.
His Venetian exile was a turning point for Whistler. It had cut him off from England but renewed his links with France. During the 1880s he was in correspondence with both Degas and Monet, the latter introducing him to Mallarme who became a close friend. But England remained the stage upon which Whistler could appear most effectively, and he still hoped to influence the future of British art. This he was to accomplish by his influence over young artists who admired his independent stance and who read his polemical Ten O'Clock Lecture, delivered in February 1883, which contains a moving and famous declaration of his beliefs:
Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard
contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick and choose, and
group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful - as the musician
gathers his notes, and forms his chordsuntil he brings forth from chaos glorious
harmony ... the story of the beautiful is already complete - hewn in the marbles
of the Parthenon - and broidered with birds, upon the fan of Hokusai - at
the foot of Fujiyama.
After Whistler's return in 1880 from his productive year of etching in Venice, it became a point of honour of any young artist worth his salt to declare his personal challenge to orthodoxy by being seen to believe in Whistlerian principles. They followed the 'master' both in their choice of subject and their allegiance to his demanding standards in exhibiting their works. But it could often be a bumpy ride.
In November 1884 Whistler was asked to join a rather staid body, the Society of British Artists. Attendances were falling at their exhibitions, and their members hoped that Whistler's controversial work and charismatic personality would attract public notice. He was loyally joined by many of his pupils, led by William Stott of Oldham (1857-1900), who had trained in Paris and passed several summers at Grez-sur-Loing while painting The Ferry and The Bathers, works which gained him French critical recognition.
In 1886 Whistler's followers staunchly voted him in as President of the Society of British Artists, just in time for him to host a visit from the Prince of Wales to one of the group's exhibitions. This led to the Society being awarded a Royal Charter as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrating 50 years of Queen Victoria's reign. Whistler himself, aged 52, was delighted with his new establishment role. He persuaded Alfred Stevens, the Belgian painter, and Claude Monet to accept honorary membership. Monet became a good friend of Whistler, staying with him when he visited London in 1887; his paintings filled the winter exhibition of the Society in 1888.
But some of Whistler's innovations and controversial new ideas were extemely unpopular. He designed a velarium of for use in the exhibitions, to ensure a subtle, diffused light, and declared: 'We want clean spaces round our pictures. We want them to be seen. The British Artists must cease to be a shop.' Such ideas upset old members of the society whose paintings Whistler had banished and, eventually, rebelled, and as a direct result of this row in 1888, Whistler and some 20 of his close associates walked out of the society, leaving it £2,000 in debt. Inevitably, Whistler could not resist the ironic comment: 'The Artists have come out: only the British remain.'
The incident confirmed the malaise Whistler had experienced after the Ruskin case, and he never felt completely at home in London again. Although he joined the New English Art Club, formed in 1886, he always remained rather scornful of its activities.
- In May 1898 at the Prince's Skating Rink in Knightsbridge, the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers opened their first exhibition. Their President was Whistler, and the 4 leading Impressionists, Manet, Degas, Monet and Renoir, as wel as Cezanne, were included in a show which formed a fitting climax tot he century.
- Further Reading:
James McNeill Whistler: Uneasy Pieces
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
G A L L E R Y
- James McNeill Whistler - Nocturne in Black and Gold (The Falling Rocket) 24 Inch Canvas
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