James Abbott McNeill Whistler
[American Painter and Printmaker, 1834-1903]
Whistler was the son of a railway engineer, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but throughout his life he pretended to be a Southern gentleman. He was, in most imaginable ways, self-invented. Like Benjamin West, he was irked by the low status America accorded its artists. His solution was not to attach himself to a court, as West did, but to depart for Paris and London and pretend to be a native aristocrat from an America he would never revisit.
Whistler went to Paris and as a young man, he worked with Gustave Courbet. He enjoyed the respect of Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, though the latter sometimes gave him the sharp edge of his tongue - "Visslair, you behave as though you had no talent." He appears (with Baudelaire, Manet, and other luminaries) in Fantin-Latour's group portrait of the rising art stars of 1864, Homage to Delacroix. "This American is a great artist," said Camille Pissarro, "and the only one of whom America can be justly proud." And Marcel Proust would turn part of his name, unpronounceable by the French, into an anagram: he became the painter Elstir in A la recherche A temps perdu. Posterity, of course, has not set him alongside those who saw him as a colleague. Whistler was a fine painter, he was never a great one, and it is absurd to class him with Degas or Manet. He didn't have the range, the formal toughness, or the breadth of human curiosity for that.
"Whistler's Mother" remains his most famous painting - up there in the grab bag of images which, for one reason or another, usually unconnected with their quality as art, everyone knows, like the Mona Lisa and Grant Wood's American Gothic. The painting that made his reputation was earlier, and better. Painted in 1862 it is a portrait of his Irish model and lover, Jo Hiffernan: The White Girl (Symphony in White No. 1). Shown in London first and then in Paris, it provoked a buzz of irrelevant interpretation. The expressionless young woman in virginal white, standing on a wolfskin with a lily in her hand (that floral emblem of the Aesthetic Movement), was declared to be a bride on the morning after her wedding night; or a fallen ex-virgin; or a victim of mesmerism - anything except what she actually was: a model posing in Whistler's studio to give him a pretext to paint shades of white with extreme virtuosity and subtlety.
Whistler was fascinated with the beauty of Japanese art and we began seeing signs of this influence in his paintings. Whistler was working on another and bigger blue-and-gold project, his greatest sustained essay in the decorative: the Peacock Room, now in the Freer Gallery in Washington. Originally it was painted for the London house of an English millionaire, Frederick Leyland, who had asked his architect Thomas Jeckyll to adapt a dining room to display his collection of blue-and-white Chinese and Japanese porcelain. Its walls were covered with panels of antique Cordovan leather, which Whistler proceeded to cover with thick layers of glossy blue-green paint, meant to imitate the surface of Japanese enamel, decorated with designs of peacocks in gold leaf. Leyland's pique at losing his expensive leather, which the antique dealer who sold it to him had claimed, no doubt falsely, was salvaged from the wreck of the Spanish Armada in 1588, set off a train of quarrels and recriminations between the annoyed patron and the touchy artist. Determined to finish his masterpiece, Whistler agreed to halve the agreed fee of 2,000 pounds. Then Leyland was "much perturbed" to find that Whistler, with his mania for publicity, had been inviting not only artist friends and prospective patrons but the press and the public into his house to view the work in progress. In revenge, he insulted Whistler by paying him in pounds, not guineas. One paid tradesmen in pounds, professionals in guineas - and Whistler was extremely sensitive on the matter of his professional standing. Whistler's own revenge was to decorate the south wall with a design of two squabbling peacocks, one rich and the other poor, somewhat in the manner of an Edo period Japanese screen. Its immediate source was an 1804 woodblock print by Utamaro, Utamaro Painting a Ho-o Bird in One of the Green Houses. The bird on the right is Leyland, drawn up in a haughty attitude with disks of gold and silver - his money - scattered on the ground before him. The other is Whistler, rejecting the filthy lucre with equal hauteur.
"From then on Whistler was constantly in difficulties with money, and he went to his grave blaming Leyland for his misfortunes. But the worst blow to his career - an entirely self-inflicted wound - came in 1878. The year before, the Great Cham of English art criticism, John Ruskin, now in his sixties and beginning to show signs of the madness and melancholy that disfigured his last years, wrote a vehement attack on Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, which Whistler had exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. Whistler's impressionistic and evocative style was, of course, the very thing that Ruskin hated most, and he pulled out all the stops: "The ill-educated conceit of the artist ... approached the aspect of wilful imposture," and "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." The national press quoted and requoted this at once, and there was no way around the fact that such a widely circulated opinion from a critic regarded as the supreme English authority on art would do grave damage to an artist's career.
"Whistler sued for libel. It is rarely wise to sue a critic. He won the case, but it was a Pyrrhic victory: the judge awarded him one farthing in damages, and the costs of the trial bankrupted him. Whistler lost his house, his collection of blue-and-white porcelain - everything. The falling rocket took him down with it; that disputed firework might have been Whistler's own career."