The Art of Illustration – Whistler On The Content Of Art

IT may be thought that Whistler, in a very effective defence of some of his own work, has disposed of any claim that Illustration might make for inclusion among the arts, except as a hanger on. The following is an extract from the Gentle Art of Making Enemies, pp. 126-128 :

” My picture of a ‘ Harmony in Grey and Gold ‘ is an illustration of my meaning—a snow scene with a single black figure and a lighted tavern. I care nothing for the past, present or future of the black figure, placed there because the black was wanted at that spot.

All that I know is that my combination of grey and gold is the basis of the picture. Now this is precisely what my friends cannot grasp. They say, ‘ Why not call it ‘ Trotty Veck,’ and sell it for a round harmony of golden guineas ? ‘ naively acknowledging that, without baptism there is no market. But even commercially this stocking of your shop with the goods of another would be indecent—custom alone has made it dignified. Not even the popularity of Dickens should be invoked to lend an adventitious aid to art of another kind from his. I should hold it a vulgar and meretricious trick to excite people about Trotty Veck when, if they really could care for pictorial art at all, they would know that the picture should have its own merit, and not depend upon dramatic or legendary or local interest. 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 of colour.

” Art should be independent of all clap-trap—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. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works ‘ arrangements ‘ and ‘ harmonies.’ ”

” The imitator is a poor kind of creature. If the man who paints only the tree or flower or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer. It is for the artist to do something beyond this ; in portrait painting to put on canvas something more than the face the model wears for that one day—in short, to paint the man as well as his features ; in arrangement of colours to treat a flower as his key, not as his model.”

A too ready or too full acceptance of this doctrine would dismiss and put out of court off-hand almost the whole of our subject. But neither the opinion nor the subject is dismissible.

Is Whistler right ? Yes.

Are Michael Angelo, Durer, Blake, and the great host of artists who have been in the main illustrators wrong ? No.

So both are right ? Yes : ” for the time being,” on one hand ; and ” for all time ” on the other.

How are the apparent opposites to be reconciled ?

It will be best to face the question to begin with rather than to fall into doubt as to whether a right course has been pursued when it may seem too late to alter it, and there is nothing to look back upon but a mistaken career in pursuit of false gods in art, as so many have done—and having lost faith in the idols they have loved, lose faith also in themselves.

In so far as Whistler’s argument is confined to the emotional effect of paint or its effect on the primary sensations through the optic nerve—a good parallel may be drawn between the art of painting and the art of music* with its effect exercised through the ear. In both cases the effect produced is one of passive sympathy with the active producer, as though a hand were passed and re-passed in a hypnotic manner over his forehead so that the will and the intellect should be put to sleep, and a state of emotional trance produced.

But even in Whistler’s argument he slithers over, apparently with a sense of the thinness of the ice, the question of portraiture. A gap has been carefully left in the quotation so that the question could be separately dealt with.

” 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 what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait ? ”

It is precisely the fact that Whistler’s logic broke down, and his emotion broke through that saves this work, that saved his Carlyle from a deadly academic perfection. The portrait of Miss Alexander would have been a ” perfect ” work of art, if the portraiture had not puzzled and betrayed him. His human sympathies were so limited, or rather perhaps so timid and reserved, that it was only under great stress that they informed, instead of interfering, with his preoccupation with pattern or silhouette, and oppositions of tone and colour. He set out in search of pure pictorial art, and could not find it, except when, in his search, he stopped by the wayside, dropped his load of theory, and gave way to what he may have considered a weakness—and ” put on canvas something more than the face the model wore for that one day—in short, to paint the man as well as his features.” This he includes as part of the aesthetic of portrait painting. What else is this but Illustration in one of its simplest manifestations ? And what but this makes the portrait of his mother something more than a restful background to intelligent conversation ?

To look to art to produce a perfect flower, like a prize dahlia, is to look for something heartless and inhuman —for art would then have become more a matter of exact mathematics than of the unknown. But Art consists of three factors in varying proportion—Intelligence, Emotion, and Craftsmanship—so to leave out Intelligence amounts to going without one of the primary colours in painting, and limiting the range of expression.

Art should be capable of expressing the reaction that is made against the whole impact of life upon the whole being of the artist ; and will be determined in its form by the medium the artist uses. To use a medium unsuited for what he wishes to express is inartistic. He will not endeavour to compel either his medium or his audience, being primarily concerned with perfect self-expression, and not with the effect of the expression on others.

The comparison of pictorial art with music alone may lead to a fallacy—for music is not in its pure form directly representative of observed sounds–whereas pictorial art does refer perpetually to observed forms and colours, and so speaks to those only who have to some extent exercised their intelligence. We do not compare the sounds of Beethoven’s sonatas with sounds heard in nature—and it is probable that an idiot is capable of as keen an enjoyment, I do not say appreciation, of music as the most intelligent : while for the enjoyment, apart from the appreciation, of a work by Holbein, Darer, or Michael Angelo, a complex of capacities is requisite. Music is a simple art, being generally even less representative and associated than the scent of the perfumer—while other arts are complex. The art of the painter is more nearly comparable to that of the poet. Words do not ” reproduce ” things, but ” represent ” ideas of them—and to represent or reproduce implies first production and presentation. Words are symbols, and not things or ideas—in a sense that sounds alone are not—and so are forms. A note has meaning only in its reference backwards and forwards in rhythm or simultaneously with other notes in harmony—as an individual note it symbolizes and suggests nothing at all but a hooter. Pictorial art in any form, like ordered speech, makes its appeal by means of recognisable symbols of things seen ; and its appeal can only be to those who have seen enough to recognize the basis of the symbol and so can follow the process by which symbols are compared, or combined into a logical unit, just as words, each containing an idea, are formed into a grammatical sentence. Whistler’s argument holds good for our pleasure in the decoration and spacing of a wall—but not for the expression of a mind except in so far as a mind may find satisfaction for itself in such expression. Art on his written terms becomes nothing more than a beautiful background—against which all the action of life takes place, and in which Art has no concern and takes no interest. Luckily, in his painting he was not quite consistent ; and his art keeps throughout some reference to common experience so that by the side of much of the work of later men it sometimes appears almost academic.