DANIEL E. SUTHERLAND: LETTERS FROM AMERICA
Whistler ranks as one of the most colourful “celebrities” of his day. The number of stories, rumours, and anecdotes about him seem endless. They were plentiful enough during his lifetime, but with
his passing, scores of friends and acquaintances chipped in by publishing tales they had heard about the Master. A tribute published only a month after his death, titled “Whistler, the Man, as Told in Anecdotes,” was twenty-five pages long. Such a treasure trove. How lucky we are to have it all. Or are we?
Not to throw cold water on the party, but having so many gems troubles me. First of all, they often exaggerate Whistler’s eccentricities and some of his less admirable traits in ways that reinforce caricatures and parodies to the detriment of the “real” man and artist. Second, Whistler inspired so many anecdotes that we are hard pressed to say which ones are true. He is partly to blame for this. He fabricated many of the least plausible stories and told different versions of the same story to different people. When he found a “good thing,” likely to draw attention to himself, it became part of his repertoire, and as
one friend said, he “was always polishing.” Some accounts sound awfully fishy to us, but many of his contemporaries bought them hook, line, and sinker. And so the legends grew.
For instance, in testifying at the Ruskin trial, Whistler declared—under oath, mind you—that he had been born in St. Petersburg, Russia. In his own mind, he may have been thinking that he had been born in Russia, at least as an artist. That is where he received his first formal lessons in drawing and learned to paint in watercolours. But many people took his statements literally, so much so that an American magazine article published shortly after the trial confirmed his birthplace as St. Petersburg.
Of course, this was all quite charming, and often done with a wink and a nod. Whenever he denied being born in Lowell—which was often—he knew that other people knew the truth. What was more, he knew that they knew that he knew the truth. When sitting down to write his life’s story—he finished only three pages—Whistler admitted to telling “the fiction of my biography.” And what acronym do we get from The Gentle Art of Making Enemies? GAME!
More dubious stories went into circulation when Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell published their chronicle of Whistler’s life in 1908. He told them many of those stories, at least some of them being patently untrue, but the gullible couple accepted Whistler’s words as gospel. When asked on one occasion to correct a demonstrably false bit of gossip about himself, Whistler replied with a chuckle, “No, no to explain is to be found out.”
He need not have worried. Writers gleefully repeated second-hand anecdotes about Whistler, usually to illustrate his wit and originality. “The papers teem with Whistler stories,” one journalist noted within days of the artist’s death. No one bothered to check their validity. They had become true through mere repetition. As one journalist recalled, reflecting on the art world of the late nineteenth century, “The extraordinary prevalence of these personal stories was characteristic of the times. They were repeated and repeated.” Artist George H. Boughton, a longtime friend of Whistler, insisted, “I can’t remember a time when his affairs and his doings and sayings did not fill the artistic air.”
Ignoring some of the more fanciful stories, such as George Moore’s assertion that Whistler wore square-toed shoes because of a “deformed foot,” let’s consider a pair of oft told tales. Overhearing the multi-talented Frederic Leighton praised for his prowess as musician, linguist, and orator, Whistler supposedly piped in, “Paints a little too sometimes, don’t he?” I have found a half dozen versions of this story, all with different settings and none worded precisely the same. Some suggest that Whistler meant to praise Leighton, others to belittle him. So, did he say it? I believe so, although one enterprising journalist, while not denying the episode, noted in 1903, “The quip was . . . of ancient date, and may be found in a French encyclopaedia of anecdotes.” Well, we know Whistler was not always or entirely original, but I think he intended this one-liner as a compliment. It smacks of Whistler’s wry and puckish humour.
There are fewer versions of a second story, though the same question of motivation frames it. A female admirer, seeking to compliment him, told Whistler that the world’s greatest painters were himself and Velásquez. Unhesitatingly, Whistler responded, “Why drag in Velásquez?” Is the anecdote true or false? This time, Whistler personally confirmed the story, but with an unexpected twist. Asked later if the remark was to be taken seriously, Whistler, whose own paintings evidenced how much he admired the Spaniard, replied in a rare self-deprecating moment of candor, “No; of course not. You don’t suppose I couple myself with Velásquez do you? I simply wanted to take her down a bit, that’s all.”
Whistler’s friend Sidney Starr assures us, “No artist of our time . . . has been the subject of so much
writing, so many recollections. Never has unliterary painting caused so much literature.” Rosalind Birnie Philip, Whistler’s sister-in-law, had heard most of the stories. Reflecting on their sheer number in 1908, she lamented, “The real Whistler in time I suppose will entirely be lost in the multitude of books produced by his intimate friends and apprentices!” Yet, that thought did not trouble her unduly when she considered how Whistler himself wished most to be remembered. “The work,” she understood, “will remain, which is a great consolation.” I suppose, upon reflection, that should comfort us, too. As for the stories, let us consider them as part of The Whistler Mystique.
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.