James McNeill Whistler

A Review by Mark Harden

James McNeill Whistler, the painter of that most American of works--the very icon of American motherhood--"Arrangement in Grey and Black" (better known, of course, as "Whistler's Mother"), ironically left the United States at the age of twenty-one, never to return. Whistler lived as an expatriate, alternating between London and Paris depending on the local artistic climate at the time. Egotistical, abrasive, and yet extremely talented, he stands as an isolated figure in art history, never directly associated with a specific style or school of painting. As a result, Whistler's work has in modern times rarely received the attention it deserves. The exhibition "James McNeill Whistler", now ending its run at the National Gallery in Washington, attempts to remedy this inattention by displaying major works spanning his artistic career.

Although a contemporary of the Impressionists, Whistler walked his own path from the Realism of Courbet to an aesthetic approach of "Art for Art's Sake." As one of the first westerners to be influenced by the artistic tradition of Japan, Whistler developed an aesthetic response to living. The Japanese made no distinction between fine and decorative art. His appreciation of this led Whistler to a wide range of artistic pursuits. In addition to his canvasses in a wide variety of media, Whistler collaborated with the architect E.W. Godwin in the design of a house as well as furniture. His famous "Peacock Room" is a milestone in interior decoration. Before Whistler, the visitor to an art gallery would be confronted by a wall-full of paintings hung from baseboard to ceiling. Whistler pioneered the modern style of sparse galleries, involving himself intimately in the presentation of his work. He even went so far as to have the gallery attendant attired in colors that would harmonize with the paintings on display. Unfortunately, Whistler's endeavors in these areas seem to have lent an aspect of decorativeness to his oeuvre that has contributed to his diminished reputation in the public mind. The popular image of Whistler as an aesthetic Parisian "dandy" is subject to reappraisal after viewing "James McNeill Whistler".

"At The Piano", 1858-59
( 800 x 575 / 48 k / jpeg )

"At the Piano", Whistler's first major work, reflects the bourgeois environment in which he was raised. Yet the standard subject matter of the drawing room piano is dynamized by the composition. Whistler consciously imitated the optical effect provided by the stereoscopes popular during his day. Note the two definitively separate focal points of mother and daughter; it is impossible to focus on both simultaneously. The shallow pictorial depth pulls the viewer into the canvas, which exaggerates this stereoptical effect. It feels almost as if you were holding a book so close to your face that you can't read the words. Compositionally, Whistler keeps the picture from flying apart by the use of strong verticals and horizontals in the picture frames and dado. Even in this early work, Whistler has achieved an intimacy between the formal structure and the subject. In most pictures of this genre, the subjects are seated side-by-side happily sharing a musical experience. In "At the Piano", mother and daughter are separated by an impassable abyss caused by Whistler's dual focal points. The impression is one of estrangement and isolation. When we learn that mother and daughter are dressed in mourning (white being the appropriate mourning attire for a Victorian child), we can appreciate how Whistler utilized a novel compositional concept to express and accentuate the gravity of his subject matter.

"Wapping", 1860-64
( 640 x 445 / 64 k / jpeg )

"At the Piano" attracted the admiration of that ultimate realist, Gustave Courbet. Before long, Whistler and Courbet were painting side-by-side "en plein air." As part of his realist education, Whistler moved into the dockside area known as Wapping. Here lowlifes of all sorts preyed on and purveyed to the naval workers. In October, 1860, Whistler began work on "Wapping". This painting was to undergo extensive reworking as Whistler's style continued to evolve. He did not consider it finished until nearly four years later. Most of the rework involved the foreground figures and has resulted in a much darkened area of the canvas in comparison to the river background. The reworking was a result of Whistler's deepening interest in realism under Courbet's influence. The subject of prostitution, depicted as a sexual transaction on the Wapping waterside, was popular in the Victorian era. Normally, however, it was presented with heavy moral overtones. Indeed, originally Whistler had painted much more of a harlot, with plunging neckline and even a knowing wink. Over time, he removed nearly all narrative from the portrayal in the interest of realistic acceptance of what was a normal occurrence in the Wapping area. Compositionally, the background of bustling river business offers a reflection of the business being transacted between the three figures in the foreground.

Had Whistler continued with subjects such as "At the Piano", his acceptance into genteel art society would have been assured. "Wapping," however, was soundly rejected by the art establishment. Whistler's confrontation of this rejection foreshadowed the iconoclastic nature of his art that would continue for the rest of his life.

"Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl", 1862
( 393 x 800 / 48 k / jpeg )

Whistler's next major work, "The White Girl", marked a new direction in his art. Six years after it was painted, Whistler retroactively confirmed this change by retitling the work "Symphony in White, No. 1". This painting was rejected for inclusion in the Paris Salon in 1863 and became a major attraction of the inaugural "Salon Des Refuses" held that year. Prominently hung near Manet's "Dejeuner sur l'herbe", it was misunderstood by art critics on both sides of the English Channel. Accustomed to a distinct narrative, critics applied all sorts of subjective interpretations to explain what "The White Girl" was about: "A sleepwalker". . "A newly deflowered bride". . ."An apparition". Of course, there was no subject; or, more precisely, the subject is simply that of a model posing in an artist's studio. The painting is a study of purely formal pictorial values. Whistler directed the model to hang her arms listlessly and maintain an expressionless face to ensure the exclusion of narrative. In this manner the work is presented as "Art for Art's Sake", without reference to anything outside itself.

Courbet, who once stated he would paint an angel if he ever saw one, was disturbed by Whistler's apparent move away from Realism. Within four years, Whistler had formally rejected Courbet's vision of Realism and set out to rebuild his art from scratch. This move toward what was later termed "Aestheticism" led to Whistler's greatest creative successes. Whistler's Aestheticism combined greatly simplified compositions, reduction of portraits to single figures and a limited range of colors. The perfect subject for this severe style was, of course, the fiercely puritanical "Whistler's Mother", painted in 1871. Ironically, Whistler's Aestheticism was diametrically opposed to the newly developing Impressionist technique just then becoming known to critics. The Impressionist wave has made Whistler's work appear retrograde in comparison, another factor in Whistler's diminished standing in the public eye. In fact, Whistler's most original works, the Nocturnes, are closer in spirit to modern art than is Impressionism. The concentration in the Nocturnes on purely formal values of color and line traces a direct descent to the development of abstraction in the early twentieth-century.

"Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge", 1872-77
( 606 x 800 / 49 k / jpeg )

In the Nocturnes, Whistler used new techniques of composition and execution. He utilized Lecoq's method of composing from memory. This system involved memorizing the primary forms of a scene and then transposing them to the canvas without visually returning to the actual motif. The technique results in a much simplified composition. Whistler accentuated this simplified vision by executing the work rapidly with thinned oil paint. Using his specially prepared "sauce", he was able to bring the entire canvas to a level of finish in a single session. Similar to watercolor, the resulting effect is one of fluid spontaneity, as can be seen in "Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge". Whistler's debt to Japanese art, specifically Hiroshige, is apparent in the almost abstract span of the bridge. Interestingly, the bridge itself is unpainted, Whistler announcing its form by simply leaving exposed the dark ground of the canvas. The contrast between the boisterous business on the river in "Wapping" and the placid river of this work reflects the great change in style that Whistler had struggled to perfect. Yet he never abandoned realism. Finding it impossible to reconcile his style of simplified composition with the bustle of river commerce, Whistler chose to represent the river in the quiet of night. This enabled him to again achieve a harmony of style and subject matter.

"Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket", 1875
( 505 x 675 / 51 k / jpeg )

The firework rocket Whistler used in the background of "Battersea Bridge" becomes the focal point of "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket". This work reaches to the very edge of abstraction, yet again maintains a representational basis. It depicts the Cremorne fireworks platform in London where shows were put on nightly. In the center, a bright explosion climaxes the display. Clouds of black and dark blue represent the smoke of the rockets. To the left, a large tree looms in the darkness, while three wispy figures admire the display from the foreground. The forceful composition evokes the actual trail of the firework explosion. Initially, the eye is attracted to the large plane of color near the bottom. The central explosion carries the eye of the viewer upward along with the shower of sparks to the large drops of paint at the top center of the canvas. Then, as anticlimax, the shower of sparks on the right float silently back into the dark of the night.

When this work was exhibited in 1877, the famous art critic John Ruskin declared: "I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler immediately took up the challenge, issuing a lawsuit for libel.

Whistler's intention in filing suit was not only to defend his artistic reputation, but to use the trial as a forum for a debate on the nature of art itself.Throughout the trial, he was to avoid referring to his canvasses as "pictures," instead calling them "arrangements," "nocturnes" and even "a problem that I attempt to solve." He wanted the public to see his works not as imparting information about an external world, but as something that "should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye." Whistler struggled to impart to a largely uncomprehending public his conception of "art for art's sake", where style and subject came together as one to provide a higher sense of representational truth.

In the most important exchange of the trial, Ruskin's defense asked in contempt: "The labor of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?" Whistler responded: "No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime." Although Whistler was victorious in the trial, he was awarded only a farthing. The legal expenses he had incurred led to bankruptcy.

Whistler's defense of formal aesthetic values in art helped prepare the ground for the development of modern art. Like all artistic pioneers, Whistler paid the price for his originality in terms of critical and public rejection. The exhibition "James McNeill Whistler" is significant for offering a reappraisal of Whistler's valuable contribution to the world of art.

Mark Harden is the art editor at Glyphs.