American Painting – Whistler

THE previous chapter concluded with a reference to Whistler. He has been re-served until the close of the story, since his art in a very striking way reflected the various influences of the Impressionistic movement. To those influences which we have already discussed must be added one more—that of Japanese art.

It was in the early sixties that the Japanese prints and paintings began to find their way into Paris studios and attract the interest of certain artists, notably of Manet, Monet, and Whistler. To men who had already learned to appreciate Velasquez’s impressionistic way of seeing his subject, his dignity of line and the subtlety of his colour harmonies, the Japanese work came as a corroboration of the lesson. Here, too, were miracles of harmony in blacks and greys, and in addition a range of tonal effects of an infinite variety and extraordinary subtlety, that opened up to the imagination of the colourist a new world of motives. They offered also a new principle of composition. The old method of building up and balancing, invented by the great Italians and pre-served by the Academicians, did not suit the purpose of the Impressionists who were bent on achieving a union of art and life. In real life people do not dispose themselves in formal groups, and affect set poses; the suggestion is rather of spontaneity, unexpectedness, and movement. How to reconcile these with unity of effect, and grace and dignity of composition? The answer was discovered in the art of the Japanese.

It appeared that they, too, were Impressionists ; not interested in form for its own sake, but in the suggestion that it afforded to the artist’s imagination, and that they had developed a principle of composition suitable to their needs. The aim of the artist was to make his painting or drawing decorative, but instead of arranging his lines and masses in a geometric pattern, suggested by the formality of architecture, he had gone to nature for inspiration. In nature it is not order but irregularity that prevails, and yet this disorder presents appearances of unity of effect. The masses of hills against the sky, the contours of coastline as it pushes its way sharply into the sea, or recedes in swelling curves, the windings of rivers and streams, the free growth of vines, and the spotting of trees against the hillside, of labourers working in the rice-fields, or fishing boats dotting the distant waters—these and countless other phenomena had gradually taught the Japanese to find a new kind of symmetry. It was the result of careful calculation, and gratified the eye with a sense of unity; yet it had the appearance of being the result of accident. It was characterised by spontaneity, unexpectedness, and movement.

The fitness of this to the purpose of investing the appearance of reality with artistic charm was immediately apparent to artists like Manet, Degas, Monet, and Whistler. From their hands it passed to others, until now you cannot open an illustrated magazine without finding the evidence of it.

But, while countless men have adopted this technical principle, some few have discovered the psychological motive underlying it. In the best periods of Japanese art, religion and art were in-, separable. The philosophy of religion taught the supremacy of spirit over matter; and the joy and the duty of the artist was to interpret this truth. So by him perishable matter was regarded as only the outward and visible sign of the indwelling, eternal, universal spirit. Form for its own sake did not occupy his attention; as far as possible, he eliminated from it all its grossness, all its suggestion of matter, striving to extract its essence and to interpret it in terms of spirit. Like the old Byzantine art, Japanese art was symbolical.

Now, the growth of realism in Europe cor-responded with a loosening of religious beliefs.

The old foundations of spirituality were being swept away by materialism. In art, both the Academic and the Realistic schools were materialistic; each in its own way magnified the importance of form, and matter, as such, was the object of its worship. But here and there appeared an artist to whom the representation of the material was of less moment than the expression of the spiritual and universal, and such found in the symbolism of Japanese art an inspiration and a clue. One of these was James MacNeill Whistler.

He was born at Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834. His father, Major George Whistler, an eminent engineer, having accepted a commission in Russia to lay out the St. Petersburg and Moscow Railroad, continued to occupy an influential position under Emperor Nicholas. After the father’s death the mother returned to America to educate her son, who in time was entered at West Point. His stay there, however, was short, and his next move was to Paris, where. he became the pupil of Gleyre, in whose studio he associated with Degas, Bracquemond, Fantin-Latour, and Legros. Yet this period of Academic instruction was but an incident in his career.

His art was a product of most delicate selection : a hybrid derived from the intermingling of many strains—Velasquez, Rossetti, the Impressionists, and Japanese—with his own rarely gifted personality, itself a curious mingling of aristocratic hauteur and spiritual sensibility.

From Velasquez he learned the value of the grand line, and of the variously defined and vanishing outlines; the placing of the figure in cool, real atmosphere, and the dignity and refinement of tones of black and grey,; from Rossetti, the fascination of his woman with ” the star-like sorrows of immortal eyes “; from the Impressionists, the renunciation of form, as such by means of lines, and the rendering of its effect by chromatic values of colour, harmonised in the medium of natural light, instead of the golden atmospheres created by the older masters. And by the Japanese he was in-spired to more ravishing harmonies of tone, harmonies of sumptuous sobriety, of tender or sparkling sprightliness, and was taught the secret of their composition, the fanastic balancing of irregular forms and spaces, with continual surprise of detail, and the arbitrary choice of a point of view, such as looking at the scene from below or from a point higher up than the spot from which one would normally expect to view it. Lastly, the Japanese helped him to find in form a symbol of the spiritual.

These various strands of motive he wove into the warp of his own creation, and the result was a fabric which had the faded splendour of old Gobelin tapestry.

But, after all, it is the character of the warp, the personal expression of himself, that is the element of salient interest in his art. He was par excellence a ” painter “; one, that is to say, who did not view nature as a collection of forms to be delineated by lines and filled in afterwards with colour, but as an accord of coloured masses. By means of these coloured masses he rendered the effect of form. He mocked at the uncompromising reproduction of the model, as he did at the idea that nature is always beautiful.

” Nature indeed,” he wrote, ” contains the elements in colour and form of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick and choose and group with science these elements, that the result may be beautiful—as the musician gathers his notes and forms chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmonies.” Again he wrote : ” And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us—then the wayfarer hastens home; the workingman and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand, as they have ceased to see; and Nature, who for once has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone, her son and her master—her son in that he loves her, her master in that he knows her. To him her secrets are unfolded; to him her lessons have become gradually clear. He looks at her flower, not with the enlarging lens, that he may gather facts for the botanist, but with the light of the one who sees in her choice selection of brilliant tones and delicate tints, suggestion of future harmonies.”

In this last sentence he betrays the ultima ratio of his artistic purpose, which was to extract from Nature her abstract appeal to the sense of sight, even as the chemist distils from flowers the fragrance that will appeal to the sense of smell, or as a musician from the throbbing of his brain brings forth the abstract harmonies of sound. In the pride of his art he claimed for it an independent value that needed no bolstering up with words. He would, if possible, have made it entirely independent of ideas. For a while he tried the experiment of leaving out forms and relying solely on tones of colour, calling his canvases ” nocturnes,” ” symphonies,” or ” harmonies,” because he was trying by means of colour to emulate the musician’s use of sounds. Of course the public did not under-stand these efforts, and expended much thin witticism over the experiment. For it was merely an experiment; re-establishing the truth, very generally disregarded in those days, that colour, when used harmonically, makes an independent, abstract impression on the imagination; but otherwise unavailing, for the painter cannot get away permanently from what is at once the strength and the disability of his art—the necessity of representing the appearances of objects. This Whistler realised.

He did not ignore form very far from it; but it was the effect of form, in its relation to the character of the subject and in its relation to considerations of abstract beauty, that alone seemed to him to be worth interpretation. In a material age he made his artistic protest against the accepted axiom that ” seeing is believing “; teaching and proving in his works that it is not what the average man sees that counts for much in art, but what, for the most part, he omits to see, since he sees only with the ocular vision and is prone to peer through spectacles.

So, in that masterpiece, The Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, he ‘did not picture a lady as she would appear to the indifferent gaze of strangers, but as she was known to the heart of her son in the spiritual communion of their mutual love. And the son being a great master, the picture becomes the noblest tribute to motherhood that painting can show, and to everyone who has known the blessing of a good mother the most wonderful interpretation of his own devotion, if he have eyes to see it.

In The Portrait of Carlyle the figure is entirely in black, the pallid face and grey hair silhouetted against a grey wall, the whole enveloped in a dull, dreary atmosphere. It is, indeed, a colour arrangement of slightly different tones of black and grey, forming a sombre harmony that Richard Müther, the German critic-historian, has likened to a funeral march. The prevailing expression is one of weariness of soul and mind. The volcanic fire that used to glow white-hot in this bitter opponent of all world-shams has burned itself to blackness and grey ash. Whether or not this truly represented, at the time the portrait was painted, the personality of Carlyle, work-worn though he was and a chronic sufferer from dyspepsia, may be doubted. The making of a likeness was seldom in Whistler’s thoughts ; it was the impression that the subject made upon his imagination that he strove to render; and in this case it is a pathetic one, consistent with itself, and most poetically wrought. It reveals, moreover, that aloofness so characteristic of this master’s work. The figure dwells apart in an atmosphere of its own, far from the glare and din of the world, wrapt in the calm that follows after passion. In the Sarasate, however, another study in black and greys only relieved by the whiteness of the shirt, the figure is represented as emerging from darkness, but only into a half light. The magic of his genius is still suspended, only a suggestion of it being hinted at in the nervous delicacy of the hands.

The value of elusiveness in a work of art was one of the great truths that Whistler’s example teaches. It is this quality which gives it pungency of suggestion and enduring interest; just as a woman, to hold the heart ‘of a man, must preserve some savour of inaccessible mystery. Of what is obviously and fully realised, if it yield no further suggestion, human nature soon tires.

The Nocturne-Bognor is penetrated with this quality of elusiveness; phantom shapes glimmering in misty, ethereal light, a spirit picture, rendering the impressions which such a scene in nature gently makes upon the imagination. So gently, that, while we are filled with sensations, they are vague, unrealisable; our spirit is allured to infinite longings in the very unattainableness of which there is a poignancy of cleansing sadness. If you have come under the spell of this enchantment in the actual presence of Nature, you recognise it instantly in this picture; if you have not, the picture may lead you to find it.

What the artist has given us is not the facts of nature, but their effect upon the spirit ; interpreting the dream or spirit world, of which the actual is the solid basis. ” The landscapes of Whistler are places of dreamland,” says Müther; “landscapes of the mind, summoned with closed eyes and set free from everything coarse and material, breathed upon the picture and encompassed with mysteries.” It was not the forms of nature per se which interested him, but their significance to the spirit; the suggestion of beauty which they yielded to the imagination. To quote Müther again : ” Like the Japanese, but with brilliant refinements such as never occurred even to the greatest painters, this wonderful harmonist has the art of simplifying and of spiritualising, retaining the mere essence of forms, and of colours; only what is transient, subtle, musical.”

If you set that wonderful portrait, The White Girl, or, as Whistler called it to distinguish it from another corresponding motive, Symphony in White, No. 1, before a young girl the fragrance of whose nature is still fresh, who still has the sanctity of maidenhood in her soul, undesecrated by precocious contact with the world, it will be strange if she does not find in the picture an echo of her own heart and thinkings. Nor can anyone to whom the exquisitely delicate flower of maidenhood is precious fail to discover therein an interpretation of his own feelings.

Again, in The Little Lady Sophie of Soho, what tenderness of spiritual insight! This child of untoward chances, dwelling in an unsavoury district of a great city, carrying her girlhood in and out of studios ! The great master has dipped beneath externals ; has looked beyond what she was to what she might have been, to what indeed she may, in a measure, still have been, and spied a flicker of pure flame within her tarnished soul. There is a pitiful tenderness in the rendering of the girl’s face, as it peers at us from its frame of elf-locks, out of the mystery of the dim, dark background. It is treated also with a touch of irony, with that mingling of pity and mockery with which the gods, themselves not free from Fate, are fabled to have watched the lives of fate-distraught mortals; and withal it is full of mystery, pregnant with the cry of why such things must be and the wonder as to whither they tend.

Nor in Whistler’s paintings, ‘despite the mystery and spirituality, and notwithstanding the elusiveness of the brushwork, is there any lack of virility. Dignity of line and mass and tone proclaims the master; and the actual laying-on of the pigment something greater than the skilful audacity of a magician of the brush. We do not see the stroke of hand which dazzles and bewilders. It is rather as if the presence on the canvas had been invoked by a supreme effort of will, so that, by the side of one of his portraits, the work of the brilliant brushtechnist is apt to seem commonplace. Perhaps one reason is that such legerdemain is for the most part associated with a keen fondness for the actual, the artist being enamoured of externals, the coquetries of costume, the intrinsic desirableness of fine fabrics. So that it may be due to inferiority of motive, rather than to the difference of technique, that he seems to suffer by comparison.

Not that Whistler ignored the fascination of textures and fabrics. No artist could. But it was not their mere appearance of valuableness per yard with which he concerned himself, but their sentiment of æsthetic suggestion. I recall, for example, the curtains in The Music Room, creamy white, with sprigs of flowers. What a sense of freshness and purity they give to the room! And the cos turne in which he represents some grande dame will offer little comfort to a milliner, nor much to the lady, if it were her gown on which she depended to be attractive. Whistler, indeed, made the dignity of the woman superior to and independent of the costume.

Besides enforcing the need of selection in art and that the spiritual and æsthetic significance of ‘things is more worthy of the artist’s study than the mere appearances, Whistler waged war against the preference of the Philistine for what he calls a “finished picture.” He had a fine scorn for the tailor-kind of mind which yearns to see each but-ton, tag, and furbelow reproduced precisely, as well as for that furnishing and upholstering propensity which desires a picture to be as crowded with details as the average parlour, and every detail highly polished. With him a picture was finished when he had succeeded, as far as might be, in reproducing the impression that he had in mind, and in disguising the means by which he had created it.

It was in his etchings that he reached the maxi-mum of expression by the smallest expenditure of means; for the medium admits a greater possibility of omission and suggestion. In the hands of a master, that is to say, for the ordinary etcher will load his plate with lines. But the mental superiority of Whistler, as an artist, was in no way more demonstrated than in his power of forming a conception of the scene and then in a few flexible, pregnant lines, executed with apparent ease, giving its character and expressiveness.

It has been remarked that he created no school. It was neither possible nor necessary. The finest quality of his art was personal to himself, an emanation of genius, not transferable; the principles that he adopted were diversely used by others; his tenets too simple and universal to found or need a school for their propagation. He did better than attract a few followers and imitators; he influenced the whole world of art. Consciously or unconsciously, his presence is felt in countless studios ; his genius permeates modern artistic thought.

It may be equally an inspiration to ourselves. We are overmuch drilled from childhood to catch at the form and miss the substance; to substitute words and phraseologies for thinking and ideas; to estimate life by material standards and to sharpen our wits at the expense of what is spiritual; to have little reverence or habit of quiet thoughtfulness, and too soon to lose the fragrance of our natures in the withering heat of worldliness. With Whistler, we may do well to enter at times into the tranquil half-light of the soul, and ponder upon the things of the Spirit.