GORDON COOKE: THE JOURNAL OF THE WHISTLER SOCIETY
It is my great pleasure to congratulate the Chairman and the committee on reaching the 10th anniversary of Whistler Society, and Georgia on the publication of the 4th Journal. I am a member of a number of societies, museums and organizations which send me newsletters and magazines, including the RA and the Tate, but nothing I receive is of the quality of the Journal. The new Journal continues the tradition of the many beautifully designed catalogues and books which document Whistler’s life and work. The first were the catalogues of his own exhibitions, and Brian and Jim Webb have produced another handsome and elegant number in which design is paramount. Whistler has entered the lives of the contributors, and in many cases has become a lifelong companion. The breadth of subjects is testament to Whistler’s importance to 19th century art and his wide circle of friends and enemies among the great figures of his times.
The Journal begins with Patricia de Montfort, who teaches art history at the University of Glasgow, where she is also Research Curator for the Whistler Collection at the Hunterian. In Whistler’s Late Portraits of Ethel Birnie in the Hunterian Collection, it is interesting to have contemporary photographs of the sitter to compare with Whistler’s paintings of his sister-in-law, and the documentation of the artist’s dissatisfaction with his work and obsessive repainting. In the case of these works from the 1890s, the artist was struggling with his wife’s suffering and death from cancer. Patricia’s insight that his sadness and grief may have inspired the repainting, provides a reminder of Whistler’s humanity.
Susan Grace Galassi is Curator Emerita of The Frick Collection. The four portraits which Henry Clay Frick bought and bequeathed to the museum which bears his name all feature in this issue of the Journal. In On the trail of Whistler at the Frick Collection Susan writes about her arrival at the Frick, her youthful enchantment with the four Whistler portraits, the education she received from senior colleagues and her gratitude for the encouragement of Margaret MacDonald. Margaret interrupted her deadlines to advise Susan and then later suggested they should co-curate a show at the Frick, the celebrated Whistler, Women & Fashion.
It is a hymn to the generosity of spirit among curators, art historians and especially those devoted to Whistler. Many of us have experienced the support of Margaret MacDonald and her willingness to neglect pressing deadlines from publishers and museum directors, to encourage those new to Whistler. It is not just her own efforts to catalogue every one of Whistler’s works in all media which has given him the prominence which, nearly two hundred years after his birth, he still enjoys. She has created precise and complete records, but she has also gone out of her way to encourage anyone who has shown the ghost of an interest in Whistler, and the proliferation of writing and research which this Journal reflects is in no small part the fruit of her unstinting enthusiasm and nurture.
Aileen Riberio taught the history of dress at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she is now Professor Emeritus in the History of Art. Aileen collaborated with Susan Galassi on the show, Whistler, Women & Fashion, bringing her knowledge of the history of dress to the project. Her expertise allows us to consider Whistler’s use of clothing and fashion in his portraits, how the fabrics and colours reflect the subject. From the seductive gaze and sleeveless dress of Lady Meux to the distracted eminence of Thomas Carlyle in his heavy black coat, Whistler gave clothing importance no less than the features of his sitters, and was known to design it himself.
Georgia Toutziari is a Whistler scholar and the editor of this Journal. She has teased a wide range of reflections on the artist and his work from a galaxy of writers and historians. From her Phd thesis on the correspondence of Anna McNeill Whistler, grew the exemplary book she wrote with Daniel Sutherland, Whistler’s Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life. One extraordinary detail which struck me when reading the biography was that Anna moved house, I think, seven times in nine years, one of those moves being from America to St Petersburg. Her article At the Piano: A Musical Portrait Group Re-Examined reveals that the President, Sir Charles Eastlake, described At the Piano as ‘the finest piece of painting in the Royal Academy’ in 1860. Now in the Taft Museum, Cincinnati, this early portrait of his sister Debo and niece Annie Haden is a radical composition dominated by the mass of the black dress, and cropped in the manner of 17th century Dutch painting. Modern yet reflecting this tradition, the essay compares it with other compositions by Whistler, and works by Vermeer, Metsu, and Manet’s later study of his own wife at the piano.
Margaret F. MacDonald is Professor Emerita and Honorary Professorial Research Fellow at the School of Culture and the Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow. She is the author, co-author or editor of innumerable works on Whistler, not least among these the catalogues raisonnes of his paintings, etchings, watercolours, pastels and drawings. Her essay illustrates the challenge of studying Whistler, even for his most devoted and knowledgeable scholar. The Blue Girl, a single idea which recurs in the artist’s work over 30 years, involving eight different models, embraces lost works, paintings affected by Whistler’s bankruptcy and perhaps destroyed. Others were unfinished, reworked, painted over and in one case, retouched at the press view of an exhibition. And yet in Margaret’s words, two ‘unexpected gems’ make the hours of study and research worthwhile, one in Glasgow, the other in Los Angeles. This ‘Blue Girl’ was shown in St Petersburg in 1898, at the Armory Show in New York in 1913 and at the New York World’s Fair in 1940, before landing in California.One model outgrew her dress between sittings, another dress was hurriedly cleaned, only for the model to miss the sitting. We learn that James Waddell, Receiver for the London Bankruptcy Court agreed to the artist’s request that no incomplete or partially destroyed paintings were to be included in the auction of his possessions forced by his creditors.
One of these was Frederick Leyland, whose daughter was the model for the second study of a ‘Blue Girl’. Other models included Maud, Whistler’s mistress, Connie Gilchrist, a skipping rope artiste and dancer who later became Countess of Orkney and Eva Carrington, an actress who married three times, lastly to the grandson of the founder of the Tate Gallery. Margaret shows that however frustrating and inconclusive the search for a painting might be, the journey through Whistler’s life and times can be thrilling.
Daniel E. Sutherland is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Arkansas, author of Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake and co-author of Whistler’s Mother. There has been speculation about the nature of the relationship between Whistler and Frances Leyland, wife of his patron, ever since he painted her portrait and made two celebrated etchings of her, Speke Hall and The Velvet Dress in the 1870s. Daniel carefully avoids, as he puts it, “attribut(ing) unstated motives to an artist’s actions”. However there is no doubt that the two enjoyed a close relationship. He reveals something I didn’t know, that Whistler was engaged to Frances’ younger sister for 19 months until Lizzie broke it off. The essay describes how Whistler enjoyed staying with the Leylands at Speke Hall, near Liverpool, where Frederick Leyland had made his fortune in shipping. One of the illustrations Daniel has dug up is of a painting by an unknown artist of Whistler with the Leyland family in the billiard room at Speke Hall. There are the two men and six women in the picture, a balance which Whistler most likely enjoyed.
Whistler retained his portrait of Frances, one of his finest, until about 1880. The family later sold it to Henry Clay Frick in 1916, and it is now one of four Whistler portraits at the Frick. Whatever the truth of their relationship may have been, no artist could have portrayed a subject with more skill and sensitivity. He laboured over it for two years and the author judges it his most elegant portrait and adds that it radiates a tenderness found in few other Whistler portraits, and certainly not in any of his commissioned pictures.
Which leads me directly to Sarah Burns’ article, Peacocks on Parade. Sarah Burns is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Indiana University, Bloomington, and she has published widely on American Art. Taking the Peacock Room at the Leylands’ London home, 49 Princes Gate, as her starting point, she examines both artist and patron as peacocks. Both were fastidious in their appearance and adopted characteristic modes of dress. In the symbol of their rupture, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room now at the Freer Art Gallery, Whistler depicts them confronting one another as peacocks. Burns goes further in arguing that Whistler’s portrayal of Leyland as The Golden Scab is equally a self-portrait. An absorbing read.
Stephen Calloway was curator at the V&A for 39 years, and has continued to curate exhibitions and to collect. He is the author of many books and catalogues, whose subjects include Aubrey Beardsley. Whistler’s famously short temper and readiness to take offence is illustrated in Stephen Calloway’s essay, Aubrey Beardsley and Whistler: A Scherzo in Black & White. The younger artist drew some brilliant, wicked caricatures of Whistler. The first was inspired by an invitation to Beardsley to dine along with Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell. Whistler stood them all up, and a delicate ink drawing lampooning the absent aesthete resulted. Although the relationship between the two artists was awkward, ultimately Whistler recognised him as a very great artist in a scene of comic drama.
Crashing into the polite art historical discussions and insights which precede it, comes Darren Waterston’s passionate and excited account of his first encounter with Whistler as a teenage art student. Awe-struck, in his words, by Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, it wasn’t until 30 years later that he saw the painting in the flesh in the Detroit Institute of Arts. But his first encounter with the image in a lecture theatre was the cause of his decision to become an artist. In his own words, ‘this painting is everything. I must pursue the life of an artist.’
Later in San Francisco he saw one of the few Whistler paintings on the West Coast, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Filthy Lucre at the California Palace of the Legion of Honour, or the Cally Pally as it is known locally. ‘How could the artist I thought I knew quite well, painter of elegant portraits and twilight landscapes, create this monstrous portrayal?’
This led to his discovery of the Peacock Room. Some years later, the curator Susan Cross invited Darren to create a mural for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Memories of the Peacock Room resurfaced, and the result was Filthy Lucre, his re-imagining of it, which crossed the Atlantic and was installed at the V&A in 2020, and which some of you may have seen and enjoyed. He set out to expose the tensions and emotional upheaval lurking beneath the dazzling surfaces of the Peacock Room. The final work rendered it in a state of decadent demolition, a vision of art and money in collision. He shows Whistler as a true precursor of the art market in our own times, and describes his own debt to the artist.
The final two articles, are by Grischka Petri, and Catherine Carter Goebel, and concern Whistler as seen by others. Grischka Petri was a major contributor to the catalogues raisonnes of Whistler’s etchings and paintings, and is an art historian and legal scholar. He has taught at the universities of Basel, Bonn, Cologne and Regensburg, and was an Honorary Research Fellow at Glasgow while working on the catalogues.
Catherine Carter Goebel is Professor of Arts and Art History at Augustana College in Illinois, where she is also director of the Centre for Whistler Criticism. Grischka Petri has unearthed from the 22 volumes of Jules and Edmond Goncourt’s Journals some revealing observations of Whistler by the Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezenzac, the subject of the celebrated portrait in the Frick, Arrangement in Black and Gold. He recalls in particular the artist’s painting technique, which he had the time to observe during seventeen sittings spread over a month. Edmond Goncourt was underwhelmed by Whistler’s portrait of de Montesquiou “in which I find a marvellous dexterity in the clothes, but a very inferior craftsmanship in the hurriedly drawn figure with sad, dirty, messy complexions.” He wrote this in 1894, but had earlier described “the American etcher as a strange creature … with his bare neck, his wooden laugh, his white lock in the middle of his black hair, his manner of a fantastic and macabre homosexual.”
Catherine Goebel has trawled through the works of George du Maurier, a friend of Whistler from his earliest days in Paris. Du Maurier’s thinly disguised portrait of Whistler as Joe Sibley, the Idle Apprentice. in his novel Trilby, was published serially in Harper’s Magazine. It cannot have been a surprise, given his previous form, that Whistler threatened legal action. Writing to the editor Whistler stated: “Now that my back is turned, the old marmite of our pot-au-feu he fills with the picric acid of 30 years of spite, and, in an American magazine, fires off his bomb of mendacious recollection and poisoned rancour. The lie with which it is loaded … he proposes for my possible ‘future biographer.’” She notes that a contributer to the magazine The Critic who wrote under the name Lounger, wrote: “Mr Whistler has mastered two arts besides painting and sketching. One he has immortalized in ‘The Gentle Art of Making Enemies’; the other is the Gentle Art of Advertising Oneself.” She observes that ironically, Whistler thereby confirmed to all that this was indeed his own portrait depicted in Joe Sibley.
The Journal celebrates the multiplicity of Whistler’s personality in essays and revelations which might find a place in The Burlington Magazine and some perhaps in Private Eye. The joys and contradictions of his personality will surely fill further volumes, and his work somehow stands apart from his feuds, bad temper and disloyalty. The creator of one of the most memorable images in art history, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, also painted four portraits which were bought by Henry Clay Frick, and which have become unforgettable masterpieces in the Frick Collection, where the competition includes Piero della Francesca, Titian, Rembrandt, Holbein, Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Renoir. In the end his works speak for themselves.
Given by Gordon Cooke on the occasion of the launch of the fourth journal of the Whistler Society at the Chelsea Arts Club on 31st January 2023. Gordon Cooke is a print specialist and a leading knowledge on the etchings and lithographs of James McNeill Whistler.