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WHO WAS WHISTLER?
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Mortimer Menpes (1860–1938) Portrait of Whistler, c.1880s
Gayle McJunkin Collection

A PORTRAIT OF WHISTLER
            - Prof. Daniel E. Sutherland

That James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) always denied being born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and steadfastly refused to divulge his age tells you a lot about him.  The truth was seldom good enough for Whistler.  As man and artist, he sought perfection in all things, never satisfied with life or nature as he found them.  He had other quirks, but a desire to create his own reality, including his own unique brand of art, most defined him.  Insecure and a dreamer, his life became a quest, a constant becoming, in which he frequently reinvented himself.  As one of the first “modern” artists, he learned to market himself by fashioning and promoting a public image.  He intended that people should see him as he wished to be seen.  We all do it.  As Mark Twain famously said, each of us is a moon, with a dark side we show to no one.  Still, it is something else again to conceal one’s whole self, and yet another to seek notoriety with a consciously invented other self.  That became Whistler’s specialty.

     Further complicating matters, he had no easily defined identity.  Poet Ezra Pound, who joyously patterned himself after the artist, claimed Whistler as an American, the greatest one since Abraham Lincoln.  Others thought him a European, most especially a child of France.  He has been called the quintessential “outsider” and the ultimate “insider.”  He was a maverick and a rebel, but also an honored Master.  He was inventive and avant garde; he was eccentric and derivative.  He was outrageously egocentric and painfully insecure.  He was incorrigibly quarrelsome and the most gracious of men.  Take your pick.  Whistler was all those things.  Best leave it at that, for to distill or categorize him only diminishes or obscures larger truths.

'Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, Portrait of the Artist's Mother' 1871. Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, France

But make no mistake.  James Whistler was a very great artist.  From childhood, he cared passionately about art.  Relatives and friends, even the closest and most beloved, came second.  Though sensitive and generous, his single-mindedness made him appear selfish, and none can deny that hubris and willfulness defined a large part of his character.  Most people found it easier to admire Whistler than to love him.  Yet, he was a pivotal figure in the cultural history of the nineteenth century, and arguably the greatest artist of his generation.  Critics past and present have judged him the finest etcher since Rembrandt.  The painting of his mother may be the second most recognizable portrait–after the Mona Lisa–in the Western world.  His famous series of Nocturnes startled everyone.  His pastels and lithographs shattered assumptions of what those forms could or ought to be. 

 

His restless mind, constantly probing and searching for new, more inventive ways to put on paper, canvas, and copper what he saw with his “painter’s eye,” kept him a step ahead of nearly all his contemporaries.  He borrowed from others, to be sure, but he more often inspired.  If the power of art is to create images and symbols that change consciousness and alter perceptions, then no one in the nineteenth century did it better.  He explained his vision, too, by writing and speaking publicly about what art ought to be.  And he did it with wit and charm.  Whistler was quick, lively, scintillating, often eloquent, sometimes poetic.  He is cited in Bartlett’s Quotations and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations more often than any other artist.

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James McNeil Whistler c.1847–1849, by William Edward Kilburn. Daguerreotype. Harvard University Libraries, Massachusetts.

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'The Last of Old Westminster ', 1862', (YMSM039) Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Without doubt, Whistler led an eventful and controversial life.  One might even call it a saga.  He seemed to know everyone of any artistic or literary importance in nineteenth century Britain and France, the two countries where he lived for virtually all his adult life.  He formed close friendships among the old Pre-Raphaelites, the Impressionists, the Aesthetes, and the Symbolists, though he aligned himself with no single “school” of art. 

 

Today, he is best remembered for his libel suit against John Ruskin, his lively verbal jousts with Oscar Wilde, his public battles with the critics and artistic rivals, his not unrelated “autobiography” The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, and the iconic painting of his mother.  Less known are his associations with such luminaries as Algernon Swinburne, Stéphane Mallarmé, Lily Langtry, George du Maurier, Bram Stocker, Thomas Carlyle, William S. Gilbert, Claude Debussy, Robert de Montesquiou, and Edward W. Godwin.  There were many memorable moments, too, as when, hoping to rid himself of financial debts, he spent nearly a year in Chile as an arms dealer.  Yet, along the way, he also produced more than 3,000 paintings, drawings, etchings, and lithographs.

 

A popular expression of his day, “art for art’s sake,” heralded beauty as the ultimate justification for art.  To the extent that Whistler devoted himself to the pursuit of beauty, his was a life for art’s sake.  One might even call it, given the compulsive nature of his pursuit, art for life’s sake.   

White House, Tite Street, Chelsea, built for James M. Whistler by E.W. Godwin. Whistler lived there in 1878-9

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

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 Success did not come easily to Whistler, for he devoted himself not just to art, but to perfection.  This, more than anything else, defined the contours and ups and downs of his life.  It explains his insecurities, the constant questioning of his own abilities, his sometimes outlandish responses to critics, his failure to be satisfied with successes, his self-promotion, the longing for recognition, the constant reinvention, the dark side that he showed to no one.  Then again, there was the sheer joy of it all.  Whistler loved being an artist.  That he produced works of genius is his legacy.

Daniel E. Sutherland is the Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Arkansas and renowned Whistler  scholar.

He is the author of 'Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake' (Yale University Press) and co-author with Dr Georgia Toutziari of  'Whistler's Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life'  (Yale University Press)