DANIEL E. SUTHERLAND: LETTERS FROM AMERICA
Whistler insisted over and over again that the principal standard for judging a work of art must be Beauty. He rejected entirely the widely accepted premise that pictorial art should tell a story, convey a moral, or elicit
emotion. As he declared in an 1878 newspaper interview, later published in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies as “The Red Rag,” art “should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like.”
However, we also know that Whistler seldom hesitated to exaggerate, bend the truth, or flat out lie to make a point. If not telling a story in his paintings, he sometimes suggested one by adding a subject—The Schooner, Little Bathers, Card Players, Herring Fleet—to their titles. Other paintings played on literary or historical figures. A poem by Charles Baudelaire influenced, if not absolutely inspired, The White Girl, with Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” Walter Scott’s “Effie Deans,” and Venus (“Rising from the Sea”) being even more explicit. Characters from Shakespeare—Orlando and Ariel—became fit subjects, and he portrayed Henry Irving in his stage role as Spain’s Phillip II. As late as 1898, he put the legendary Greek courtesan Phryne on canvas.
Nocturne in Grey and Gold---Chelsea Snow, done in 1876, seemingly carries no such baggage. It shows a lone unidentified figure, shoulders hunched for warmth, shuffling along a dark wintery street. Perhaps he is bound for the lighted building ahead of him, which Whistler went so far as to identify as a tavern. Possibly a story? No, declared Whistler. “I care nothing for the past, present, or future of the black figure,” he insisted, “placed there because the black was wanted at that spot.” When friends said the figure reminded them of Trotty Veck, the main character in a Charles Dickens story, The Chimes, Whistler vehemently denied any connection: “I should hold it a vulgar and meretricious trick to encite people about Trotty Veck.”
But doth the artist protest too much? We know that Dickens had been one of Whistler’s favourite authors from youth. He made drawings of at least two Dickens characters—Sam Weller and Captain Cuttle—when at West Point. There is also a watercolour of Weller, the good-hearted scamp who became a particular hero of Whistler. He bestowed the names of other Dickens characters, including Micawber, Heep, Swiveller, Esmeralda, Pecksniff, and Podsnap, on friends and enemies throughout his life.
More than the names of characters, the mood and imagery of Dickens’ stories shaped Whistler’s work, specifically his Nocturnes. Multiple influences led Whistler to create this famous series of paintings, but one of them was literature. The atmospheric effects and shadows that characterize the Nocturnes also define many of Dickens’ stories, sometimes as a character, often as allegory or metaphor. “Dickensian gloom” became a by-word for the wretchedness and squalor of his London and many of its people. Equally, with the gloom came a mystical, unearthly quality. Dickens, like Whistler and many other Victorians, was intrigued by the occult, the supernatural, and the powers of mesmerism. He attended at least one séance, was fascinated by ghosts, and experienced nightmarish visions. These influences and experiences shaped much of his writing, either explicitly or implicitly. As a poet friend said of him, “[I]n reading Dickens I have felt horror, the equal of which Poe himself does not inspire.”
The Chimes is just such a work, and the kind that would have stimulated Whistler’s imagination. While the book, published in 1844, has a serious message about Victorian treatment of the poor, its subtitle is A Goblin Story. The plot revolves around Trotty Veck, a genial, aged “ticket-porter,” or casual messenger, who experiences a dream-like vision of his own death and its sad consequences for the people he has left behind—a sort of Victorian George Bailey. His trance has been caused by the ringing of church bells, which Trotty fancies call his name, and the taunting of their goblin attendants. These “mysterious and awful” figures, “draped and hooded . . . motionless and shadowy,” berate Trotty for his lack of faith in the goodness and worth of the working classes, of which he is part. He is stirred from his nightmare at story’s end by the pealing of those same bells on New Year’s morning. The “Spirit of the Chimes” awakens in him a realization that “we must trust and hope, neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another.”
It is unlikely that Whistler set out to tell Trotty’s story in his Nocturne, but as it evolved, the shadowed and atmospheric winter scene might well have reminded him of Dickensian themes. The conveniently placed daub of black added a touch of mystery to the work and could have easily embodied Trotty, pursued by those unseen but terrible goblins. “Making, with his leaky shoes, a crooked line of slushy footprints in the mire,” Dickens explained, “and blowing on his chilly hands and rubbing them against each other, poorly defended from the searching cold by threadbare mufflers of grey worsted,” Trotty stubbornly made his way through the “blue-nosed, red-eyed, stony-toed, tooth-chattering” winter night. From what we can see, it is a fair description of Whistler’s black figure.
Dickens’ book was wildly popular, more so for a long time than A Christmas Carol, published a year earlier, and its other-worldly elements explain much of its appeal. Whistler was clearly familiar with the story and would have appreciated how the black daub, whether or not representing Trotty, deepened the ethereal quality of his painting. After all, as one critic described him, Whistler was a “mystic,” ever searching for that which “lies just across the border-line of consciousness.”
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow, 1876, Harvard College
Robert William Buss (1804–1875) Dickens’s Dream, 1875, Charles Dickens Museum, London
Dickens's The Chimes, The Pears' Centenary Edition, vol. II Titlepage.
Trotty Veck among the Bells in Dickens’s The Chimes, The Pears' Centenary Edition, vol. II
Trotty Veck, from Arthur Rackham (1867 – 1939) from A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books, by Charles Dickens
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.