WHISTLER, James („Jimmy“) Abbot McNeill (1834 – July 1903, 69)
A one off: a singular, ambitious, anachronistic Neo-Romantic artist, across the back nine of the 19th C.
But a Modern painter he was not.
His determined aesthetic mission (particularly in his Nocturnes, to c1875) pioneered painterly effects which may have influenced Modern abstraction, but (like Turner’s later art) fortuitously, for their effect not their intention.
His now famous Mother, and some of his many (mostly later) watercolours / pastels are worthy cousins.
But his personal aesthetic quest – less is more – is arguably timeless, beyond Modernism.
The die was cast early: the style of his oeuvre did not evolve much in the second half of his active career.
FEATURED IMAGE: 1885 Variations in Violet and Grey—Market Place, Dieppe, gouache and watercolor on off-white wove paper, on academy board, 20.2 x 12.7 cm, Met (DETAIL). COMMENT: The older Whistler unwinding with watercolor.
Unmistakably Whistler: his two signature images, and deservingly so……
1871, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, Whistler’s mother, oil, 144.3 cm × 162.4 cm, Musee d’Orsay.
COMMENT: This now famous painting was one of Whistler’s finest, though its turbocharged fame is accidental, because the subject happened to be a mother.
1872 75, Nocturne, Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, oil on canvas, 51.2 x 68.3 cm, Tate Britain.
COMMENT: Less is more. Whistler’s other masterpiece.
Less well known……..
1872-73c, Nocturne; Battersea Bridge, pastel on brown paper, 18.1 x 27.94 cm, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
COMMENT: Here an unusual blaze of color contrasts starkly with his subdued contemporaneous Nocturnes in oils. But again he restricts his palette. Now we see a “Nocturne in blue and gold, moon and Battersea Bridge”, and again the strong influence of Japanese prints.
1866, Nocturne in Blue and Gold, Valparaiso Bay. Oil on canvas, 50 x 76cm, Freer Gallery of Art – Washington DC.
COMMENT: On his abrupt South American career adventure, In Chile’s main port Whistler importantly advanced his “Nocturnes” theme.
1865, Whistler in his Studio, self-portrait, oil on paper mounted on panel, 62.9 x 46.4 cm, Art Institute of Chicago;
COMMENT: East meets West, flattened perspective, Asian porcelain, ladies in kimonos, versus the artist’s stance echoing Spain’s Velazquez, who he rightly admired.
1883–1884, Arrangement in Pink, Red and Purple, oil on board, 30.5 x 22.8cm, CIncinnati Art Museum, Ohio.
1883, Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret, oil on canvas, 193.4 x 90.8 cm, Met. Museum of Art, NY
COMMENT: Two later contrasting “portraits”, from the same time, but one (much smaller) looks East and one West.
- Whistler is sometimes proclaimed as a precursor or forbear of the Modern, especially 20th C abstraction. But (like Turner and Delacroix) he was not. He was not a Modern painter, in intention and temperament, in inclination to break from tradition, in his art engaging with his dramatic times: the ongoing revolution in the Western economies, and, alongside, in art and culture. Rather he stood apart as a committed anachronistic Romantic, but original in his own way, rowing his own canoe, and influentially. Thus any influence on Modern abstraction occurred
- In his obsessive experiment trying to capture the momentary appeal of (in his case) aesthetically rich atmospheric Thames evening river scenes he (like JM Turner not long before) achieved pioneering proto- or quasi-abstract painterly effects, such that a number of these images (notably Nocturne, Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-75, and Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, c1872-77) are now justly celebrated.
- And their pioneering impact was in some way confirmed by their mixed reception then, by stiff Victorian England. Thus Whistler’s painting friend Fantin-Latour frowned on them, and the well known (but then older, 61) English art critic John Ruskin famously flipped, wrote 1878 of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket: ‘[I] never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’, a view oddly inconsistent with his earlier championing of Turner for a painting approach clearly analogous to Whistler. Even his friend Oscar Wilde struggled with Old Battersea Bridge (1877): [It was] ‘worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute‘. But the French composer Debussy understood, applauded and 1899 wrote Three Nocturnes to acknowledge them.
- But Whistler, like Turner before him, was was in no way aiming at abstraction. He was painting „realistically“, what he saw, though of course his precise depiction was not „realistic“, rather he carefully manipulated, adapted the compositions and surfaces for visual effect on the viewer.
- Arguably this restrained quasi-abstraction is the apogee of Whistler’s aesthetic achievement. The spare, evocative compositions expressed through a compressed palette evident in his Nocturnes and also some of his decorative figurative interiors – less is more – is timeless, ultimately detaching from the period of its creation, lying beyond Modernism.
- Early on, in Paris (c1860), Whistler met and painted with leading Realist artist Gustave Courbet, and also met the pivotal French poet Charles Baudelaire, a key thinker advocating for the Modern. Despite also his life then overlapping closely with Pissarro (3 years older than Whistler), Manet, Degas, Cezanne (5 years younger), and Monet (6 years younger), and despite being active till around 1900, right through Neo and Post Impressionism, Whistler basically stayed well clear of mainstream Modernism. He was asked by Degas to hang with the first Impressionist show in 1874 but like Manet, said no. Monet and Pissarro he met again in London, c1870-71, during the Franco-Prussian War.
- Instead he stayed firmly in the Romantic paddock, hence followed in the immediate wake of Delacroix and Turner, though in a quieter corner than Delacroix. Thus he is rightly associated with Ars gratia artis (Art for art’s sake), and the Aesthetic Movement, painting „beautiful“ images for their own sake, with no didactic, polemical or moralising purpose, reflected too by his long habit of deliberately giving his painting titles alluding to colours and/or music, rather than some direct description of the subject. His aesthetic artistic mission is neatly expressed in his 1885 Ten O’Clock Lecture: „the artist is born to pick and choose.. that the result may be beautiful… until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.”
- Arguably Whistler’s famous Nocturnes (32 in total?) and many of his other landscapes (oils and watercolours) fall within the orbit of They were contemporaneous (the first Impressionist show was 1874) and they also strived to capture an appealing momentary visual apparition, though his method was quite different, using sparer, contrived compositions, a much subtler smoother application of pigment, and a softer, much narrower palette.
- This thematic journey commenced around 1863, soon after his important exposure (c1862) to Japanese prints. It grew out of his embrace of the Thames which started 1859, soon as he arrived London from Paris, and continued with his 1865 work at Trouville in France with Courbet, and on his 1866 visit to Chile (cf Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso Bay). It peaked about a decade later, mid 1870s, especially in Nocturne, Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge (1872 75).
- The Japanese prints of Hiroshige et al, from the ukiyo-e school, reached Europe not long after Japan’s 1853 Meiji Restoration, which opened old Japan to the world and allowed Japanese art out. These prints impacted strongly on contemporary artists in England and France. Thus Whistler would have seen the big exhibition of this art in London 1862.
- By about 1870 Whistler was conscious of his firm allegiance to Ars Gratia Artis,“divorced from any didactic, moral, or utilitarian” purpose. The form of words had been used earlier, eg by E.A. Poein 1850, but the phrase was popularised mid 19th C by French critic Théophile Gautier (1811-72) to rebut the critic John Ruskin who argued art should carry a message. Then Walter Pater and the Aesthetic Movement took it up in the 1860s, consciously opposed to Victorian moralism.
- Whistler wrote and spoke extensively on his approach to art, rejecting art’s traditional role “in the service of the state or official religion”. He said: “Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone.” His 1885 “Ten O’Clock Lecture” (published 1888, see excerpt below) was translated by poet Stéphane Mallarmé into French and introduced Whistler to the Symbolist circle in Paris. Whistler’s collection of letters and pamphlets on art, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, was published by William Heinemann in 1890.
- The Romantic Whistler was not alone in England, followed in wake of, was part influenced by, the uniquely British anachronistic Romantic Pre-Raphaelite movement, launched by manifesto 1848. He knew, lived near, one of its leaders, DG Rosetti. However the Pre-Raphaelites did not fit Ars Gratia Artis, rather painted with a specific (nostalgic!) didactic purpose, to recover pre-Modern themes, reacting to – fleeing from! – the dramatic change on economy and society being wrought by the ongoing Industrial Revolution.
- Thus, like Delacroix, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, and despite living through the storming, buoyant back half of the 19th C, Whistler painted next to nothing of contemporary life about him. Instead, in pursuing his aesthetic mission he focussed almost completely on two specific categories, atmospheric river and seascapes, and portraits and figurative interior scenes, some conservative or conventional, others bolder.
- He is described by some as a major exponent of „tonalism“, a term apparently contrived by American critics around the 1890s, but of vague meaning beyond misty, atmospheric use of soft mostly neutral hues, per contra the brighter sharper approach of Impressionism, and subsequent other Modernist movements.
- Whistler was an accomplished and industrious artist across a range of media, leaving over 500 paintings, as well as etchings (over 500), pastels, watercolors, drawings, and lithographs. Thusbeyond oil painting he became a major force in etching. Understandably too, given his aesthetic mission, he executed fine watercolors, mainly later, some inspirational but not pioneering? He was a slow, painstaking worker, sometimes demanding many sittings from a subject person.
- Whistler the man? Known as „Jimmy“ to his friends early in Paris, he was a ‚character‘, colorful and controversial. Short (only 5‘ 3“, though full length portraits of him disguise this?), he was witty and engaging, self-confident and ambitious, a self-promoting Euro-trotting dandy. He was also prickly, acerbic, and temperamental to the point of physical aggression, like on the boat back from Chile.
- He was headstrong, like his sudden adventure in Chile, like provoking a dispute with the wealthy Frederick Leyland which cost him important patronage, and like when, jealous of his reputation, he sued the crusty critic John Ruskin for his intemperate review – again to his cost – when all he had to do was let time do his work, for the painting concerned is now rightly regarded as pioneering and prescient.
- Interestingly Whistler was the first of a number of American artists to make an impression on European later in the 19th C, and probably the most important, about 20 years ahead of the other great late 19th C American painter, John Singer
- Curious is that despite both these painters living and painting through a period of momentous change in Western art, neither jumped on board, neither were sympathetic to the radical cause, both remained old school, probably because what drew both to become intimate professionally with Europe was the appeal of its powerful traditional culture, whence their American roots were an offshoot.
- Except for the important isolated exception of Mary Cassat (1844-1926) it was not until early in 20th C that American artists willingly engaged the Modern, artists like Max Weber (1864-1920), Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). Arthur Dove (1880-1946) etc.
Whistler in his 1885 “Ten O’Clock” lecture:
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 chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.
To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano.
That Nature is always right, is an assertion, artistically, as untrue, as it is one whose truth is universally taken for granted. Nature is very rarely right, to such an extent even, that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong: that is to say, the condition of things that shall bring about the perfection of harmony worthy a picture is rare, and not common at all.
(Cited 2010 by H. Barbara Weinberg, Met. Museum)
- Whistler was American by birth and family but deliberately adopted Europe as his home, especially Paris/London. He travelled early to St Petersburg with his civil engineer father, based there from age 8 till 14, and commencing his art training. Visiting London at age 13 he was exposed to art like Rembrandt etchings through his brother in law, Francis Seymour Haden, a doctor and artist. Back in the US after his father died of cholera he entered the West Point Military Academy in 1851 (oddly enough when Col. Robert E Lee was Superintendent!). He did learn drawing there, but was not suited to formal training and in 1854 was expelled for lack of discipline.
- Decisive and self-confident he soon headed to Paris in 1855 (age 21), after a short stint in the drawing division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Washington, D. C., which introduced him to And he never returned. He had read a book, Scenes from a Bohemian Life, which confirmed his appetite for art as a career. The move was enabled through financial help from family friend, Tom Winans, who also later bought some of his early paintings. But.
- In Paris he trained at Ecole Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin, and at the atelier of Gleyre, a keen fan of Ingres (“line is more important than color”). He visited the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857, became enamoured of the Dutch masters and Velasquez. He also met flowers and fruit painter Henri Fantin Latour (1836-1904) and through him Gustave Courbet, leader of the Realists, and in particular the pivotal Modernist poet Charles Baudelaire.
- Whistler’s early artistic activity focussed on etchings. Twelve Etchings from Nature was printed in Paris after a tour of Alsace, Luxembourg and the Rhineland, and were hung at the Paris Salon and London Royal Academy (RA) in 1859. The work as well received in London so he moved there May 1859, where he joined his well off half sister Deborah and brother in law, a keen etcher and doctor. From lodgings near Tower Bridge, began a series of etchings on the Thames (the ‘Thames Set’), published in 1871, praised by Baudelaire in 1862.
- Whistler’s most curious adventure was abruptly sailing to Valparaiso in far off Chile in 1866 for reasons which, through his younger brother William‘s role as a surgeon to the Confederates in the US Civil War, included trying to sell arms to the Chilean Navy, during that country’s then war with Spain. The financial venture failed, and mistress Jonna Hiffernan decamped, but in Chile he did importantly advance his Nocturnes painting theme.
- He began showing oil paintings in the 1860s, but acceptance was slow. His first paintings (like La Mere Gerard, 1858) reflected Courbet’s spare Realism, but not for long and by the early 1860s he was already emabarked on his own Romantic aesthetic journey.
- At the piano (1859) was rejected by the Paris Salon, encouraging his move to London, where he painted the interior figure scene Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room (1860-61).
- Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862), using his mistress Joanna Hiffernan as model, was rejected by the RA in 1862 and the Paris Salon in 1863, along with Manet’s famous Déjeuner sur l’herbe, But both these paintings then starred at the 1863 Salon des Refusés. Whistler originally titled the painting The Woman in White, when after its RA rejection it was hung in London at Berners Street Gallery, using the same title as Wilkie Collins then popular novel.
- But a critic at the 1863 French hanging referred to it as Un Symphonie du blanc, and the musical allusion appealed to the painter’s aesthetic purpose, to highlight his concern more for the allusive connotations of the image than for the specific subject. Symphony in White, No. 2: Little White Girl followed in 1864 and it was accepted by the RA summer 1865.
- All these interior paintings broadly reflect the Pre-Raphaelites, also the influence of Japanese prints, eg Caprice in purple and gold, the golden screen (1864).
- In the mid 1860s shipowner, R. Leyland (the ‘Liverpool Medici’) became an important patron, and it was he (keen on Chopin) who suggested he title „nocturne“ for his evanescent night scenes.
- But in decorating Leyland’s London house at Princes Gate, 1876-77, Whistler overstepped his brief and lost his supporter. The dining room, now known as the Peacock Room, was transformed into Harmony in Blue and Gold, around peacock motifs. In unleashing his Japanese enriched aesthetic imagination, he “completely painted over16th C Cordoba leather wall coverings.. brought to Britain by Catherine of Aragon..“?! In 1904 American collector Charles Freer bought the room from Leyland’s heirs for his Detroit house and it now features in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
- Around the mid 1870s the aesthetic “Nocturnes” quest of the 40 year old Whistler peaked, reached the high watermark through a series of striking oil paintings, particularly the celebrated Nocturne, Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge (1872 75) and also Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875).
- Drawing on the impact of Japanese prints the pioneering Old Battersea Bridge is justly lauded, especially for its composition, anchored by the diminutive figure (like the artist!) perched bottom right foreground – the Romantic solitary soul, „Everyman“,, – also for the faint speckle of golden fireworks above the figure, in the distance, both dwarfed by the bridge being cropped to leave one large axe-like span, encrusted by other tiny figures using the infrstructure.
- He painted six Nocturnes from Cremorne Gardens on the north bank of the Thames near his Lindsey Row residence, depicting the calm opaque atmosphere of the river early evening. Like Turner not long before he worked hard to capture the appealing momentary atmosphere, using oil paint thinned by additives for the soft blurred features, then (for the Falling Rocket) dripping paint finely to convey fireworks, and coarser brushstrokes to delineate figures and other solid structures. He researched the scene en plein air. „With the Greaves brothers as his oarsmen, he would set off at twilight and sometimes remain on the river all night, sketching and memorising the scene” (Frances Fowle, Tate 2000). But he always painted the images in his studio.
- Around 1870 was a purple patch for also about then (1871) Whistler painted what has become his signature work, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (later “Whistler’s mother“), though for reasons which would frustrate him now. The relatively large painting, executed after his devoutly Protestant mother arrived London January 1864, is striking (then and now) for its large carefully contrived composition (again influenced by Japanese prints, and allowing elderly mother to sit), and for its narrow palette. It was shown at the RA in 1872 but only just, for the conservative RA questioned the title, „Arrangement etc“, not realising it described what the artist most intended, ie not a portrait of his mother! For by then he understood his painting mission as ars gratia artis (art for art’s sake).
- Thomas Carlyle saw it and agreed to sit for a similar composition, which became Arrangement in Grey and Black No.2.
- Whistler was forced to pawn Arrangement No. 1 after losing his 1878 case against Ruskin(?!), but the outcome was pleasingly adventitious for the ambitious artist, for it was acquired in 1891 by the French Government, by Paris‘ Musee du Luxembourg, and here was billed correctly as „Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1“.
- The painting has now become very famous, up there almost with the Mona Lisa and Warhol’s MM, but accidentally, as an iconic image of motherhood!? Which was not the painter’s intention. And this has occurred mainly because in 1930s Depression US the Postal Service applied the image to a postage stamp titled “In Memory and In Honor of the Mothers of America”, and the painting toured the land by train!
- However in pursuit of his artistic goals the impetuous Whistler was financially incautious. He lost Leyland as a major patron, he lived and entertained beyond his means, then in 1878 sued John Ruskin for libel after the critic panned Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, which was hung at the Grosvenor Gallery in summer 1877 after rejection by RA. He won the libel case but was awarded token damages without costs. These costs and his debts incurred building his residence in Chelsea (“The White House”) tipped him into bankruptcy in May 1879, losing “his work, collections and house”.
- Commissioned by the Fine Art Society of London (which ironically helped pay Ruskin’s costs from the trial) for a set of twelve etchings, Whistler left for Venice September 1879. But he stayed 14 months, not the planned three, worked hard and produced 50 etchings and over 90 pastels of back streets and canals. He roomed there with a young (23) John Singer Sargent. The work was well received. The first Venice set (of twelve etchings) was published in 1880 (Venice, a Series of Twelve Etchings), but printing took over twenty years. A second set (26 etchings) was published by Messrs. Dowdeswell in 1886, and printed within a year.
- In later years he travelled more, in England (eg St Ives) and Continental Europe, especially to Dieppe and back to Paris. Near the end (1901) he visited Algiers and Corsica.
- He married Beatrice Godwin in 1888 (at 54), a former pupil and widow of another painter, and happily. They honeymooned 1889 in the Loire Valley and Amsterdam, the occasion recorded in another important tranche of etchings, which the artist prized. They moved to Paris 1892, but sadly she died as soon as 1896.
1859 Brown and silver, old Battersea Bridge, 76.2 x 63.5 cm
1859 At the piano, 91.6 x 67 cm, Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati
1860-61, Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room, 96.3 x 71.7cm, Freer Gallery of Art
1862, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White girl, oil on canvas, 215 cm × 108 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. COMMENT: large painting.
1864-71, Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses, 51.3 x 76.5 cm Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow;
1863, Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach.
COMMENT: 1863 marks the start of Whistler’s “Nocturnes” journey, soon after his exposure (1862?) to Japanese prints. The artist starts to respond “Romantically” to the calm, subtle atmospheric appeal of the Thames, but immediately mixing figures and Man’s structures with the watery background.
1864, Chelsea in Ice, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 cm, Smithsonian Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington D.C;
COMMENT: Whistler continues his discovery of momentary “Impressionistic” restrained, narrow palette, atmospheric exterior waterscapes. What a contrast then between his these subtle landscapes and his colourful Asian-infused decorative figurative interiors.
1864, Caprice in purple and gold the golden screen, 68.5 x 50.1 cm, Freer Gallery of Art;
1865, Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, oil on canvas, 49.5 x 75.5 cm, Isabella Gardner Museum.
COMMENT: Harmony in Blue and Silver is trademark Romanticism, if simple, Man and his “life canvas”.
1872 (age 38), Arrangement in Gray, Portrait of the Painter oil, 53.3 x 75 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts.
COMMENT: shamelessly inspired by Rembrandt’s self portrait of 1659 which Whistler saw in London 1871.
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1659, Self portrait, oil on canvas, 84.4 cm × 66 cm, NGA, Washington
1871, Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea, oil on canvas 40.5 x 62.7 cm
1872, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights, oil on canvas, 50.2 x 74.3cm, Tate
1873 Symphony in flesh colour and pink, portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 102.2 x 195.9 cm , Frick Collection
1875, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, oil on panel, 46.6 x 60.2 cm, The Detroit Institute of Arts. ;
COMMENT: The painting critic Ruskin assailed.
1873-75, Note in red, the siesta, 51.4 x 31.1 cm
1877 Study for the mouth of the river, watercolor, 17.78 x 22.23 cm
1876, Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket, 1876, oil on canvas. Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts.
1888–1900, Mother of pearl and silver: The Andalusian, oil, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C]
1881 Arrangement in black, No.5 (portrait of Lady Meux), oil, 130.2 x 194.2 cm, Honolulu Museum of Art
1881 Harmony in pink and grey (portrait of Lady Meux), oil, 92.2 x 193 cm, Frick Collection
1879, the-guidecca-winter-grey-and-blue, chalk, 20.32 x 29.85 cm;
1880 note-in-flesh-colour-the-guidecca, pastel, 12.7 x 22.86 cm
1884 Pink note, shelling-peas, w color, 14.6 x 24.3 cm, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
1883-84, Nocturne Grey and Gold – Canal, w color, 29.21 x 23.18 cm;
c1883 Green and silver, the bright sea, Dieppe.
1884, Milly Finch, water colour, 29.85 x 22.54 cm
1885 Grey note, mouth of the Thames, w color, 2.7 x 21.59 cm
1885 Variations in Violet and Grey—Market Place, Dieppe, gouache and watercolor on off-white wove paper, on academy board, 20.2 x 12.7 cm, Met;
1885 Harmony in blue and pearl, the sands Dieppe, oil on board, 22.86 x 13.97 cm;
1900, Brown and gold, Self portrait, oil, 51.5 x 95.8 cm, Hunterian, Glasgow.
COMMENT: a very subdued, spare final self portrait! The man fading into oblivion. Taking a bow?