DANIEL E. SUTHERLAND: LETTERS FROM AMERICA
I regularly receive requests for information or my opinion concerning Whistler’s life and art. Some people contact me through the Society; others write to me directly.The nature of the requests vary.I am occasionally asked to authenticate a painting or drawing as a genuine Whistler.More often, people wonder if I might verify some biographical or genealogical detail about the Master.I am pleased to oblige when able, or at the very least refer the person to someone with more knowledge than I possess about their particular interest.In any event, I nearly always learn something from these exchanges, especially when presented with a newly discovered piece of the puzzle that is James Whistler.Let me share with you a recent example of what I mean.Anna Curran contacted me a few months ago with information about her great- grandmother, Anita LeRoy, who had studied at the Académie Carmen, the art school operated by Whistler in Paris between 1898 and 1901. I use the word “operated” loosely. Whistler fell into his brief career as professor when one of his models, Carmen Rossi, opened a life-study studio at 6 passage Stanislas, a narrow street between boulevard Raspail and rue Norte Dame des Champs, where Whistler had his own studio. She asked him to help pay rent for the school, but he soon found himself, as well, agreeing to instruct classes. The wily Carmen advertised for students in both French and English, the latter circular announcing the “Whistler Academy” as an “Anglo American School.” Sixty “élèves,” most of them apparently American or British, enrolled in little over a month.
We do not know if Anita LeRoy was among the first students. To my knowledge, no rosters for the school have survived, and while several students later published accounts of their experiences, we know the names of very few others, or when and how long they attended the académie. Many did not stay long, only a few days or weeks in some instances. One of the chief reasons for leaving was that Whistler appeared at the school infrequently and gave very few genuine lessons when in attendance. As one student recalled, their “professor” dropped in whenever “the spirit moved him; and . . . the spirit moved him very seldom.” Students also learned that Whistler expected them to have a good understanding of drawing before arriving, and that his main concern was to teach painting.
Whistler had decided years earlier that the training given to young artists, even at the most celebrated Parisian ateliers, was “radically wrong.” He would introduce these new disciples to his own “system.” “My idea is to give them three or four colours—let them learn to model and paint the form and line first until they are strong enough to use others,” the Master explained. “II they become so, well and good, if not, let them sink out of sight.” So as to encourage no false expectations, he announced to his students, “I do not teach Art; with that I cannot interfere; but I teach the scientific
application of paint and brushes.” They would also learn that “the real, quiet, subtle note of Nature required long and patient study.”
As was the common practice in art schools of the day, Whistler separated the men and women, the women occupying the building’s ground floor, the men the floor above them. It soon became clear that Whistler also favoured his female students. He had long believed that women painters represented the “future of art,” and while he could be severely critical of his female élèves, he also believed their minority status in the art world made them more teachable than men. They better appreciated the need for training and, unlike some male students, did not see him as a potential rival, whom they might one day challenge for supremacy. Besides, Whistler said, men lacked “personality” and were “less interesting” than women.
This was the world in which Anita found herself, and from all indications, she in it. Born in New Hampshire in 1877 to a cleric and his wife, she had already studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts by the time she went to Paris, and so presumably had the requisite skills in drawing. We do not know precisely when she attended the académie or how long she stayed, but it must have been before May 1900, when Whistler moved the atelier from what he called the “pestiferorus atmosphere” of claustrophobic Stanislas to boulevard Montparnasse. It seems likely as well that she had enrolled by at least 1899. Early that year, Whistler posted several “Propositions,” or “laws of art,” that he had crafted in the 1880s on the walls of the académie. He also provided individual, handwritten copies to his students. Anita’s descendants still have her copies, one in English, the other a French translation by Whistler’s friend Theodore Duret.
Even more striking evidence of her time at the atelier, and genuine contributions to our knowledge of the Académie Carmen, are a photograph, a drawing, and a map, all reproduced here with the family’s permission. The photograph shows Anita (on the right) with a fellow student (known only as Sarah) outside the school. Anita later made a delightful ink and watercolour drawing (nearly a colour photograph) of the same scene. Equally exciting is a hand-drawn map of the neighbourhood around the school. It not only shows the location of the atelier, but also where some of Anita’s friends lived and worked, the location of an American church, where she posted her letters, where she and her friends would “hang out” (13 rue Boissonade), a group of artist studios, and a venue known for its “very Bohemian Balls.” It also shows the street where she lived during her “first weeks” in Paris (144 boulevard Montparnasse), presumably with Sarah. Family tradition says she later lived near Mary Cassatt, but that would have been far removed from the académie. Cassatt, in the 1890s, resided at 10 rue Marignan, in the 8th Arrondissement, rather than Whistler’s 6th.
To have saved such mementos, Anita clearly cherished her time under Whistler’s tutelage, however brief or sporadic.She also seems to have learned the lessons instilled by his “Propositions,” as witnessed by a painting—of a young woman seated in a chair—that dates from her time at the académie.While not the best known of Whistler’s female students—that honour would belong to Gwendolyn John—she did have a successful career as an artist.Living until 1980, Anita became known for her Dutch-themed genre paintings and was a consummate illustrator and commercial artist.An early example of the latter talent was her artwork for “Le Calendre Breton,” in 1906, apparently done to commemorate the passing of French artist Jules Breton.Anita must have returned to the United States that same year because she also exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1906.She married in 1908 and thereafter, as Anita LeRoy Pemberton, lived and worked primarily in and around Philadelphia.Her work most recently sold at auction in 2013.
Advert for Whistler Academie / Anglo-American School of Art in Paris
James McNeill Whistler’s Propositions for the Academie
Anita LeRoy Pemberton and Sarah outside the Académie Carmen
Ink and watercolour drawing of Anita LeRoy Pemberton and Sarah outside the Académie Carmen. Reproduced with permission.
A map of Paris near the Académie Carmen. Reproduced with permission.
Untitled painting by Anita LeRoy Pemberton, date unknown. Reproduced with permission.
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.