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Whistler listened attentively one evening as three friends, Sir Richard F. Burton, Burton’s wife, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, engaged in a “heated religious discussion.” It seems that Burton (an avowed “Mahometan”), his wife (a Catholic), and Rossetti (a “pagan”) held strongly divergent opinions about the meaning of faith. Finally, Lady Burton, seeking to break the stalemate, asked Whistler his religious preference. Feigning surprise that his opinion should be sought, the artist replied, “I, Madam? Why, I am an amateur.”

Well, not quite. Whistler’s parents had reared him as an Episcopalian, which required daily Bible readings into his teens. By the time he left West Point, aged twenty, his naturally rebellious nature had led him to abandon organized religion in both ritual and substance. Yet, he could not escape his spiritual training. It reappeared often during his life, sometimes in perverse ways.

So steeped in Scripture was he that biblical references, phrases, and quotations sprinkled his correspondence and public statements. “The Ten O’Clock” lecture was structured as a sermon, with Whistler serving as “The Preacher.” Granted, much of its phrasing and cadence may be seen as a parody of the Bible, but then Whistler always contended that he loved the Old Testament for its “wide range of invective.” “Behold! and forsooth!” one imagines him saying, “I summon the language of the Prophets in rightful wrath against all who sin against Art!” One admirer declared him an “Artistic Evangelist.”

Whistler’s fascination with seances and spiritualism, so vividly displayed for us by Darcy Sullivan at the Society’s most recent “Nocturne,” betrays vestiges of genuine religious faith. Anyone attempting to contact those beyond the veil must surely have some hope for a Hereafter and the possibility of eternal life.

Some spiritual quality or association is less obvious in Whistler’s art. He drew Biblical scenes as a boy, very likely to please his devout mother, but the only overt religious connections in his mature work appear in sketches, etchings, and lithographs of churches. In my “Nocturne” talk for the Society, I mentioned the most telling examples. During his wife Beatrice’s ultimately fatal illness, in 1896, the artist suddenly began a lithographic series of London churches. With no precedent for such a deliberate turn in his work, it was as though he sought solace in quiet churchyards, his drawing employed as a form of prayer. He abandoned the project when Beatrice died, with only two drawings completed (St. Anne’s, Soho and St. Giles-in-the-Fields), but soon after, while visiting a church in France, he thought of lighting a candle for her. Emotionally devastated, he wrote to his sister-in-law Ethel Whibley, “I wish I were a Catholic.” He repeated that repressed desire so often to other people over the coming days that word spread through London of Whistler “turning to Rome.”

Now, consider the other images of churches in Whistler’s work, nearly all of them dating from the 1880s. He made several pastels of churches and religious houses during his exile to Venice in 1880 and some etchings of churches while traveling through France, Belgium, and Holland later in the decade. The only known images of London churches prior to 1896 are an etching of one in Edgeware, a drawing of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and a pair of lithographs done in the churchyard (but not of the church) at St. Bartholomew the Great. He also made an 1894 lithograph titled The Priest’s House, Rouen.

The one exception to all this is Chelsea Old Church, but that, too, tells us a lot. The church appears in numerous sketches, etchings, and paintings, beginning in the 1860s, but despite it being his mother’s favorite place of worship, Whistler never drew or painted the structure itself, no “portrait,” as it were. It only appears in panoramic views of Chelsea, as part of the landscape. He treated most other churches the same way, or alternatively, focused on particular architectural features, such as a doorway, window, or tower. He rarely drew an entire church, as he did in his 1896 “series.” The most notable exception is an etching of a church in Amsterdam, done in 1889, and even that one is seen from a distance.

A telling example of how little reverence these buildings inspired in him is an etching of a church interior, done in Brussels. He had only entered the church to escape a sudden rainstorm, but once inside, he passed the time by sketching a group of worshippers, heads bowed in prayer. When finished, he mischievously inserted his butterfly signature above and in front of the congregation, with rays of light streaming down upon them. He titled the etching The Church-Brussels (Adoration).

But what of Whistler’s painted Nocturnes of the Thames? Frequently praised for their “poetry,” “mystery,” and “ephemeral qualities,” one may easily see in them a type of reverence, if not for a supreme being, then for nature. Perhaps, while finding no spiritual element in stone structures, Whistler could divine it in mists, fogs, and shadows. Perhaps that is why his mother, who had been disappointed by his indifference to the rituals of her faith, accepted the fact, while living with him in Chelsea, that her eldest child at least adhered to a “natural religion.”


Chelsea Bridge and Church, 1871, etching and drypoint

St Giles-in-the-Field, 1896, lithograph

Under the Frari, 1879-80, chalk and pastel, Colby College Museum of Art

The Church - Brussels (Adoration), 1887, etching and drypoint

We continue to be grateful to Emeritus Professor Daniel Sutherland for his outstanding contribution to the Whistler Society.

NEWSLETTER No. 34 May 2021
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