Pretty Paintings from a Petty Man : Notes on J.M. Whistler
July 11 is the birthday of J.M. Whistler whose life story made me question whether I wanted to write about his art. It’s a test Edgar Degas failed.
Upset about an unfavorable write-up, painter James McNeill Whistler sued British art critic John Ruskin, resulting in an 1878 trial over libel charges.
Whistler sought to play down his American roots, often falsely claiming Russia’s gleaming aristocratic St. Petersburg as a birthplace. But filing a lawsuit against a respected and ailing scholar like Ruskin seems to me an unfortunately American response.
It shows Whistler to be what he was, a scrappy and entrepreneurial hustler from the industrious northeastern U.S.
Whistler was born on July 11, in 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts, and only moved to Russia around 1843.
His father, George Washington Whistler, was an engineer and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He was hired to work on Russia’s railroads. As a result, James McNeill Whistler spent much of his youth in St. Petersburg and London before attending his father’s alma mater. He fared poorly there. Then Col. Robert E Lee was West Point’s superintendent at the time and eventually had to dismiss Whistler, possibly for failing a chemistry exam.
Whistler moved to Paris around 1855 and never returned to the United States, spending much of his time in London.
Among Whistler’s most famous works is this 1862 portrait of his companion, Joanna Hiffernan, also called Joanna Heffernan.
Stretching to about eight feet in height, this painting is a commanding work, a standout even in the rich collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
It often has called to me when I have been looking at paintings in nearby rooms at the National Gallery. It pulls on you like a magnet.
“Symphony in White, №1: The White Girl” is a magnificent painting, although it does not tell you much about Joanna besides confirming the Irishwoman’s beauty.
Consider how much more expressive is the face of the wolf head of the carpet than that of Hiffernan, who by many accounts was a lively and intelligent woman.
“Symphony in White” reflects Whistler’s study of Japanese art and his shift away from realism.
“Clearly, Whistler was more interested in creating an abstract design than in capturing an exact likeness of the model, Joanna Hiffernan,” the National Gallery of Art says on its website. “His radical espousal of a purely aesthetic orientation and the creation of `art for art’s sake’ became a virtual rallying cry of modernism.”
(Note: There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with information on materials used in research on this essay.)
Below are a few more of Whistler’s paintings, including the famous portrait of his mother. The star of that painting is not Mrs. Whistler, but a captivating play of somber tones.
My favorite Whistler paintings are his nocturnes. These are his attempts to “paint the air,” as art historian Linda Merrill says in the compelling documentary, “James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty.”
“You can’t really paint the air, but that’s exactly what he was trying to do,” Merrill says.
Have a look at these images of some of Whistler’s paintings and then we’ll get back to that lawsuit against Ruskin.
“The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”
Writer Kathryn Hughes opened her 2014 review of Whistler biography in The Guardian with these observations :
“It is one of the great unfairnesses in life that bad people sometimes produce great art. That is certainly true of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, about whom it is hard to think of anything nice to say. Vain, pugnacious, a rotten father and kind to his mother only because he was terrified of her, Whistler is not the sort of man you relish spending 400-plus pages with. But then you look at his Nocturnes — in which the industrial Thames becomes a serene, shimmering mystery — and you realise you could forgive him almost anything.”
Whistler was a dandy who sported a monocle and carried a bamboo cane. He liked the bohemian life. Whistler was said to have great wit. An often-told tale has Oscar Wilde complimenting Whistler at a party for a particularly nice turn of phrase.
“I wish I had said that,” Wilde says, to which Whistler replies, “You will, Oscar, you will.”
Less impressed by Whistler was a leading art critic of the Victorian era. John Ruskin (1819–1900) and Ruskin clashed over the merit of the Whistler painting shown below.
The U.K.’s Tate has an excellent short description of what happened, saying “it was perhaps inevitable” that Ruskin would find Whistler’s work intolerable.
Ruskin championed and celebrated paintings that were true to nature.
He admired members of a group of painters known as the Pre-Raphaelite school for their dedication to working outdoors, rigorous botanical accuracy and attention to minute detail, wrote Jennifer Meagher in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Below is an example of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. In it, John Everett Millais shows us the drowning of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
As the Tate’s website tells us, Millais gives us flowers and bushes and grasses rendered in “painstaking botanical detail.”
Writing on Medium last month, art historian Christopher P. Jones noted how this Millais painting “successfully blends a realistic depiction of the natural world with details that have symbolic pertinence” to Shakespeare’s story of Ophelia.
Ruskin also saw art as a means for expanding the minds of people who were less educated. To this end, he wrote a series of letters intended for the U.K.’s working people.
Think about what Ruskin loves and what he expects art to accomplish. And then remember Whistler’s work.
In the 21st century, we know how to read a painting like “Nocturne in Black and Gold.” In it, Whistler accomplishes perhaps his goal of art for art’s sake.
Our hunger for beauty is met, and we are swept into this dark evening. We could be watching this fireworks display if we let our imagination take us there. We’re in the scene, where with the gorgeously detailed Millais painting, we’re watching it. We’re on the bank, looking at Ophelia. We’re not in the water.
But for Ruskin, Whistler’s smeary painting seemed like a poor trick intended to be played on a customer.
It was in one of his letters addressed to Britain’s working class that Ruskin criticized “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.”
Ruskin wrote that he’d “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” In response, Whistler sued him. It was something of a publicity stunt, and very much in keeping with Whistler’s noted penchant for self-promotion.
“How James McNeill Whistler Became a Brand and Fought for It in Court” is the apt title of a 2014 article in the magazine of the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities about this case.
Whistler was deeply in debt at the time. He pursued a libel suit with two aims. He needed money to pay his creditors and he saw the courtroom as a new venue to promote his ideas on art.
Whistler suffered indignities in the case. One of his paintings was displayed upside down in court. He won the case, but was awarded only a token — a farthing — and not the one thousand pounds he sought.
Still, you have to say this for Whistler. He made an argument during the case that resonates for artists and craftspeople (including the modern kind who create new apps by writing code) and even journalists like me.
We shouldn’t pay artists and craftspeople and writers and software engineers for time spent on a certain work, but for the time spent acquiring the skill and knowledge needed to produce it.
In his book, “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies,” Whistler recalled his famous exchange with an attorney defending Ruskin.
The attorney asks how long it took to paint “Nocturne in Black and Gold.” Whistler tells him about a day and then amends his answer to two days, allowing for time to add finishing touches.
“Oh, two days! The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas!” the attorney asks, seeming shocked at what was then a handsome sum.
“No; — I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime,” Whistler replies, saying in his book that this answer drew applause.
As noted at the start of this essay, I found the story of Whistler’s libel suit a bit distasteful. His personal life was not exactly admirable. And his paintings of Jo Hiffernan, while gorgeous, disturb me a bit. She looks like a prop in Whistler’s “Symphony in White, №1: The White Girl.” Whistler’s rival painter Gustave Courbet shows us Jo as more of a real person. I’ve written a bit about this in another Medium essay. (There’s a link to that too in the bibliography at the end of this essay. )
But in the end, Whistler still seemed a worthy subject. Not so Edgar Degas, who also was born in July.
When I started planning to write Medium posts about artists, Degas was near the top of my list of subjects. I did waver a bit thinking of his bad attitude toward women. Do you remember what Sister Wendy Beckett of the BBC’s great art history shows said? She accused him of having a “cold heart.”
Then I found out about Degas’ rabid anti-Semitism while doing research for my recent Medium post on lovely Camille Pissarro. (There’s a link to the Pissarro post in the bibliography as well.)
“Okay, that’s it for Degas,” I said aloud to myself on reading about his hatefulness.
I have this luxury as a writer of picking and choosing essay subjects. But how should teachers of art history handle the question of bad characters making brilliant art? Please feel free to comment on that topic here.
Here’s the link to the bibliography that includes a section of Whistler. In keeping with his wishes, I put him on my list of European artists, not the American one. Also, I highly recommend this Medium post, “How to Read Paintings: Ophelia by John Everett Millais,” by Christopher P. Jones.