American Painters – Whistler

NO greater genius has arisen in the art world since Rembrandt than James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), but to separate the artist from the man, bristling with eccentricities and constantly at variance with the painter and the philistine alike, is not an easy task to-day. The time will come when Whistler, the great master, will fulfil his own words in the world’s estimate of his works of art. “A work of art,” said he, “should appear to the painter like a flower perfect in its budding as in its flowering, with no reason to explain its presence and without need of beautifying it a joy for the artist, an illusion for the philanthrope, an enigma for the botanist, an accident of sentiment and of alliteration for the man of letters.”

Whistler was born in Lowell, Mass., and died in Chelsea, England, and was buried in Chiswick graveyard beside his mother ; but who can say to what country belongs his art?

Except for a short time in Gleyre’s studio, he learned from all painters, especially from the Japanese artist, Hokusai (died the middle of the nineteenth century), who impressed him as a man of god-like qualities. One time Whistler said, with that superior air so characteristic of him, “Yes, there is Velasquez, Hokusai, and myself.” No two artists influenced him more than these two, but even the bias from them was purely Whistler when it appeared on Whistler’s canvases.

The one thing that he excelled in above all others in his painting was the “maximum effect with the minimum of effort,” but that effort was “the result of the studies of a lifetime,” as he himself said.

As we stop before Giovanni Boldini’s “Portrait of Whistler” (Fig. 49), Institute of Arts and Sciences, Brooklyn, I hear you exclaim, “So that is Whistler!” Yes, “the Whistler whom the world knew and feared.” We find as we compare it with the portrait of his mother, the same flat cheeks and hollow temples; the frontal bone has the same curve over the eyes; the wrinkle that begins at the base of the nose and drops to the chin is there ; the mouth is the same, only the son smiles half contemptuously, half kindly, but the mother’s mouth expresses no transient emotion, only the habitual control of years. We feel like asking, “Was this the true Whistler?” Probably not the one his mother knew, but the one Boldini knew. Whistler himself said of it, “They say it looks like me, but I hope I don’t look like that!”

Mr. and Mrs. Pennell, in mentioning this portrait in their biography of the artist, say that “it is, however, a wonderful presentment of him in his very worst mood, and Mr. Kennedy (who went with Whistler to Boldini’s studio) remembers that he was in his worst mood all the while he posed. It is the Whistler whom the world knew and feared.” Whistler hated posing and took little naps in between. But Boldini caught him in his waking moment with photographic exactness, so like him that Mrs. Pennell says : “You might be looking at Mr. Whistler’s reflection in the glass as he sits there, his right elbow on the back of his chair, his head resting on the extended fingers of the hand, the other hand holding his hat on his knee . . . in this sort of achievement no one can be compared to M. Boldini.”

If Whistler had painted but the one picture, “My Mother” (Fig. 50), in the Luxembourg, Paris, his fame would have gone down to posterity as surely as that of the author of the “Elegy.” He says : “Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black.’ Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but can or ought the public care about the identity of the portrait?” We feel like protesting and saying, “What does the public care about the picture as an ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black’ compared to its interest in the picture as a portrait of a mother the type of true motherhood?” The mother element is strong in that calm, forceful old lady quietly meditating as she sits with folded hands. Her peace has come through mental and spiritual discipline, for to her life means eternity.

It was my good fortune several years ago to hear Mr. John White Alexander say in sub-stance, holding a letter from Whistler in his hand, “Whistler told his mother upon leaving America that he would come home to her when he had made a success, but,” Mr. Alexander added, “success financially did not come and that kept him from returning to America.” Fortunately, his mother went to him, which softens a little the pathos of unappreciated genius.

It was twenty years after Whistler painted his mother’s picture before he found a purchaser, and then the French nation bought it, though it was offered to America for twelve hundred dollars. It seems incredulous that we should have been so purblind to the value of a great masterpiece.

In “At the Piano” (Fig. 51), owned by Edmund Davis, Whistler has given a touch of home life that speaks volumes. That idea was probably the farthest from his mind as “an arrangement” in a particular colour was paramount with him but could anything speak more eloquently for sympathy between mother and daughter than this, the child held spell-bound not alone by the music but by the mother as well? And it is a lovely picture. Every line in the composition, every colour element, every gradation of tone are perfect. The music itself could not soothe us with a more harmonious melody than does this picture. As we look at the mother and child we feel the spirit of Whistler in them and rightly so, for the mother is Mrs. Seymour Haden, Whistler’s sister. As Whistler often used this little niece in his pictures there must have been a bond of sympathy between the uncle and niece.

Look at the folded arms of the “Blacksmith of Lyme Regis” (Fig. 52), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Was ever a smithy more sure of his strength? We could say of this man,

“He earns whate’er he can ; And looks the whole world in the face, For he owes not any man.”

It is possible, however, as we study care-fully the sideways glance of the master smith’s eyes that Whistler is also peering out of those pupils and with that baffling hint of mysterious understanding that held his creditors at bay. The closer we observe the works of the master painter the more convinced we are that in each work he has left a vital, living part of himself.

In his “Study in Rose and Brown” (Fig. 53), Gallery of Fine Arts, Muskegon, Mich., we feel that little Rose’s calm rebellion will deny no one that she has pitted herself against the whole world has a suggestion of a child understanding far beyond her years. Back of those eyes of the blacksmith’s daughter is an uncanny spirit of mocking self-assurance that only love and faith could conquer. She is as individual a personality, with her searching eyes of almost uncanny intelligence, as the artist himself. Now look at her hands and see if we can rid ourselves of her influence as a living power. Such a child lives as does Maggie Tolliver and Little Nell.

Whistler, in his “Gentle Art of Making Enemies,” said, “As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or colour.” He no doubt gave here the keynote to his religion in art. But when we come to consider the portraits of his “Mother,” “Carlyle,” “Little Rose of Lyme Regis,” and “The Master Smith of Lyme Regis,” we are not sure that he told the whole truth of his religion. Truly the character of his sitters as the “subject matter” is just as important in these pictures as is his “harmony of colour.” We admit that not often was Whistler interested in people per se, but when he was who could or did show greater insight into their character?

The “Portrait of Sarasate” (Fig. 54), Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, compels our attention, and no wonder, for it is one of Whistler’s character sketches. Possibly the eminent Spanish violinist may be remembered quite as well through this representation of him as by his own wonderful career. I well remember the impression the portrait made when it was first exhibited in New York City about the year Whistler died, 1903. The picture was hung in the corner of a long room opposite an entrance door. I hesitated at the doorway because the presence of the master violinist was so intimate and warm and his eloquent eyes and melancholy face were so instinct with life that I waited, hoping to hear again his interpretation of the mighty Beethoven. From Sarasate’s physique and carriage, as Whistler portrays him, one might almost think it a portrait of the master painter himself in the guise of a master violinist. Sarasate and Joachim were dividing honours when the twentieth century opened Sarasate died in 1908 and musical critics agree that “they will hold their places in the annals of violin playing as the representatives of certain elemental excellencies in art.”

Of Whistler’s portrait rules “an arrangement” came first, then later the individual’s personality. “In the Studio” (Fig. 55), Art Institute, Chicago, is merely “an arrangement” pure and simple, only that the Whistler personality in his own figure is so compelling that, after all, it is a portrait too. Though basically American, was ever an artist more cosmopolitan than Whistler? Unique to the point of being eccentric as an individual, he never dropped to the vulgar to express his desire for something new in his art. Egotistic he was in the extreme, but always holding to a definite idea of wholesome beauty. We may not agree personally with his ideas of what is beautiful and attractive, but we always feel the sweet purity of his artistic conceptions. That many of his themes were mere personal expressions of some abstract ideas floating in his fertile brain is undoubtedly true, and when extreme Whistlerians are ecstatically enthusiastic over his symphonies we feel like tapping our fore-heads with a sly grin. There really is not much that we can say of “In His Studio,” and he himself challenging us in a rather contemptuous manner but is it contemptuous or only a challenge by one who is sure of himself?

A most illusive portrait by Whistler is the “Lady with the Yellow Buskin” (Fig. 56), Wilstach Gallery, Philadelphia. She turns as she passes, seemingly to glance at us, but where she is going or where she came from are entirely beyond our knowledge. Her personality is tantalising. She uses no art to draw us, yet we would follow, if only to solve her identity. Certainly Whistler has here brought together simplicity and skill in the most perfect manner.

Yes, Mr. John C. Van Dyke is right, “It is the maximum of effect with the minimum of effort” that places Whistler among the great portrait painters of the world. The mysterious essence we call personal charm that hovers around his people is of the spirit, for it is rarely that he represents beautiful women or handsome men. In fact, the reverse is so prominent that we almost feel an impatience at his perverseness, then we smile for we know that he has made us admire his people in spite of ourselves.

The portrait of “Connie Gilchrist” (Fig. 57), Metropolitan Museum of Art, is one of Whistler’s rare examples of a figure in motion. Connie Gilchrist was a popular dancer at the Gaiety in London in 1876. She is represented as on the stage with a skipping rope. Whistler has caught her just as she flutters light as a feather over the gleaming footlights. Her mellow brownish-yellow costume shimmers and twinkles like a butterfly in the sun. A colour poem the painting certainly is ! It re-minds us of the Jersey meadows in the fall when the grasses and sedges are flaunting their feathery tops, catching every golden ray until they vie with the topaz in gradation of colour.

Whistler, the etcher, is as distinctive a term as Whistler, the painter. “With the etching needle in hand he draws as only Rembrandt had drawn before him. . . .” writes Mr. Cortissoz. Whistler wrote on a proof of one of Rembrandt’s portraits, “Without flaw. Beautiful as a Greek marble or a canvas by Tintoret. A masterpiece in all its elements, beyond which there is nothing.” And to it affixes his familiar butterfly monogram. “The Portrait of Whistler” (Fig. 58), by Thomas A. Way, from whom Whistler learned the process of lithography, shows the artist in his workshop examining his plates.

One who knew Whistler well in his home life says that there, with his beloved Trixie (his wife), he found a sanctuary of peace. Unfortunately, his “Gentle Art of Making Enemies” was so strong in him that much of the time enjoyed he had little peace in the world. But even his most acrimonious attacks on the public do not acquit that public of its cruel neglect of one who will be remembered long after many of the public favourites are forgotten.