DANIEL E. SUTHERLAND: LETTERS FROM AMERICA
James Whistler excelled at self-promotion. Known as much for his antics and quips as for his art, he purposely courted public attention. Often caricatured in Punch and other publications, he was more familiar to the public than most other artists. Obliging journalists and editors, notably Edmund Yates of The World, eagerly printed his letters to the press, interviewed him, and reported his frequent legal disputes. They made Whistler one of the world’s first “celebrities, and he ensured the continuing impact of their work by republishing much of it in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.
At least one artist supply dealer recognized the promotional value of Whistler’s notoriety by asking him to endorse a particular brand of tubed pigment. Only his signature was to appear in the published advertisement, not, as in Lillie Langtry’s famous Pears Soap advertisement, his photograph. Whether Whistler took advantage of the opportunity is unclear, but the value of his celebrity status was confirmed in the 1880s when a U.S. tobacco firm, Allen & Ginter, included him in a set of artist trading cards to promote its line of cigarettes. The firm had not obtained Whistlers’ permission, but given his addiction to smoking, it was an appropriate endorsement.
His death would seem to have ended Whistler’s value as a pitchman, but not so. In 1910, with his name and art still fresh in public mind, his connection to tobacco was again exploited when a brand of “Whistler Cigars” appeared on the U.S. market. This time, his portrait (based on a drawing by Paul Adolphe Rajon) graced the box, even though Whistler had smoked only cigarettes. More appropriately, in the 1930s, Player’s cigarettes, in Great Britain, followed the American advertising gimmick by including Whistler in a set of “Dandies” promotional trading cards. As recently as 2014, the earlier Allen & Ginter card was reissued by the Topps trading card company.
More often, Whistler’s art, rather than his image, have been the medium. The earliest example came in 1904, when his etched portrait of Sir Garnet Wolseley was turned into a jigsaw puzzle. Eventually, as the generation that could instantly identify his face faded away, reproductions of his art gained importance as the selling point. The portrait of his mother was first to be used, and it remains far and away the most widely exploited of his work. Especially popular when associations with old age or motherhood are required, she appeared as early as World War I in a recruiting poster for the Irish Canadian Rangers. The legend “Fight for Her” plastered beneath her image said it all. By the 1920s, Anna was selling all variety
of commodities, the logic being, as an American advertising executive put it, that famous paintings, instantly recognizable to millions, served as “the poor man’s picture gallery” in consumer marketing. Elizabeth Pennell spotted a reproduction of her portrait “in the midst of the candy” in a Philadelphia shop display for Mother’s Day in 1920. Pennell thought it an appropriate use of Anna’s likeness, but not all of Whistler’s old friends approved of the exploitation. “I cannot refrain from expressing the great resentment I felt,” declared artist Albert Ludovici, “on seeing his very fine portrait of her being used as a poster, and plastered over the Tube stations advertising some commodity.”
Other paintings were slower to join the parade. Indeed, Whistler’s artistic reputation endured something of a slump from the 1940s through the 1960s. However, starting in the 1980s, a revived interest in his life and art resulted in certain of Whistler’s work popping up in the most unexpected places. Album covers of music by Frederic Chopin and Claude Debussy, who sometimes styled their compositions “nocturnes” were made to order for one of Whistler’s similarly tilted paintings. Even a 2022 recording of John Ireland’s music, with nary a “nocturne” in sight, uses
Nocturne: Blue and Silver—Chelsea on its cover. Whistler’s “Symphonies” are another popular choice, with, for example, Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl used for the album cover of a recital by soprano Georgine Resick. Oddly, a modern edition of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, a perfect fit for Symphony in White No. 1—and associated with that painting during Whistler’s lifetime—relied on the portrait of Frances Leyland for its cover. A variety of Whistler’s other paintings have illustrated annual calendars, even if his presence there is not nearly as ubiquitous as such artists as Claude Monet or Vincent Van Gogh.
Unfortunately, lots of kitsch items also exploit the likenesses of both Whistler and his paintings. A bobblehead Whistler is available on eBay, and his mother appears on coffee mugs, T-shirts, tote bags, women’s sportwear, and men’s ties. Anna—the teetotaller—has even been used to sell whiskey, and a California wine, Mother’s Choice, has her affixed to the label. She has been shamelessly exploited by magazine, newspaper, and Internet cartoonists. As the ultimate mother-figure, she was perfect for warning against the dangers of Covid, although it is harder to explain why she appeared in an advertisement for the U.S. television sit-com Fresh Off the Boat.
Perhaps the most respectful flogging of either Anna or Jemie were their appearances on U.S. postage stamps, Anna in 1934, the centenary of her son’s birth, and he in 1940. It was perhaps appropriate that The Mother came first.
We continue to be grateful to Dan Sutherland for his Letters from America. They originate from his notes and research for his forthcoming book which will explore the enduring influence of James McNeill Whistler and the lives of those he knew and inspired.