Sunday, September 6, 2009

James McNeil Whistler

At this point our history must take a side trip to London. This portrait by Walter Greaves, shows J. M. Whistler, ( I have tried so hard to look like Whistler!, and I did, at least until my hair got sick) who was born in Lowell Massachusetts, about twenty miles from where I am sitting. Whistler later made his home and career in London.

He was eccentric, acid tongued, wildly talented and a dandy. He was fabulously clever, and his wit was famous in his day.
Whistlers father was an engineer and was in Lowell helping to build what was then the most advanced system of water driven mills in the world. The senior Mr. Whistler was hired to oversee railway construction for the Czar . James was schooled in the Imperial Academy and was drawing casts at eleven. Upon his fathers death of Cholera, Whistlers mother returns the family to Pomfret, Connecticut.

Whistler applies to, and is accepted to West Point. He lasted there for three years before leaving, evidently over failing chemistry. He supposedly answered in an oral exam, that silicon was a gas. Later he quipped "had silicon been a gas, I would be a general today". Here is this weeks odd little factoid, Whistlers drawing instructor at West Point was Robert Weir, father of the artist Alden J. Weir. In those days officers had to be taught drawing, there was no photography to accurately depict things, and officers would be called upon to both design and describe fortifications. Drawing was commonly taught in many schools in that century and it was perceived as a valuable skill and not just a nicety of social refinement.


After a stint as a marine surveyor, Whistler went to Paris and studied in the studios of Charles Gleyre. Gleyre was an exponent of black as the root of color harmony. Whistler used that idea many times in his paintings. Although he worked at about the same time as the Hudson River School, he was a generation ahead of them aesthetically.

Whistler was an irreverent partier, exchanging quips with Oscar Wilde and appearing in caricature in the popular magazine Punch. About art though, he was very serious and was a champion of art for arts sake.


He gave a series of famous lectures that were summarized, and mixed with his caustic letters in reply to his critics, in a book called The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. His ideas on art were highly developed and based partially on Japanese prints and partly on Velazquez and Rembrandt. Not only a painter, Whistler was a great etcher, one of history's best.


Whistler and Ruskin, the artist writer,critic who had such an influence on the art of the 19th century, became embroiled in an argument, and then a trial for libel, that although Whistler won, ruined him financially, as he was awarded only a farthing for damages. His arguments in court were summarized in the press and had an enormous influence on how the next generation of Victorians would think not only about painting but about beauty itself.


He developed a style of paintings that he called nocturnes, as he saw them as arrangements of harmonized colors comparable to the harmonies in music. These paintings were so thin as to almost be stained onto the canvas and they were ethereally delicate. These paintings were often based on gray, and some were based on a single tone that was woven through the whole. They were tonalist.

Here is a famous excerpt from that trial, with Whistler being examined by Sir John Holker, Ruskins Lawyer.
Holker: "What is the subject of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket?"
Whistler: "It is a night piece and represents the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens
Holker: "Not a view of Cremorne?"
Whistler: "If it were A View of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement. That is why I call it a nocturne...."
Holker: "Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?"
Whistler: "Oh, I 'knock one off' possibly in a couple of days - one day to do the work and another to finish it..."
Holker: "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?"
Whistler: "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."
images from artrenewal.org and athenauem.org.

16 comments:

Walter L. Mosley said...

Once again, thanks, great stuff here. Frank Mason whom I studied with many years, his teacher, Frank Vincent Dumond met and became friends with Whistler in Paris.
Frank over the years told some amazing stories concerning Dumond and other notable artists of that time and experiences he had. The most memorable stories were captured on video at a special talk he gave a few years ago at the Salmagundi Club and the story of meeting Whistler is on it.

Jeremy Elder said...

Whistler is such an interesting fellow!

By the way, Charles Hawthorne was around then too right? He seemed to be around the same time as the Hudson River School, but not like them stylistically. Although, maybe you aren't covering him as he did more figures than landscapes??

jeff f said...

Whistler, what more can be said about him. He was a fine painter, ahead of his time in so many ways. His prints rival Rembrandt's and Zorn's and if did nothing else his status in art history would be secure based on that body of work alone. Let's not forget his watercolors and pastel drawings.

whistler's wife Jo was from Glasgow and the Hunterian Museum has the largest collection of his work outside of the U.S. the time I was there they had his palettes and those long brushes he used. Some of them were about 3 feet long. They also had his china and other items from his home. It was interesting to see all of this. The most interesting was how on some of his palettes he had white in the center and colors left and right of it based on warm and cool for lack of a better term. They also had his mahl stick which was made of bamboo.
His watercolor boxes and the small sketch box he used for out door painting which was the size of a cigar box.

Another aspect about Whistler was his devotion to his wife Jo who after the Ruskin trial came was diagnosed with cancer and he spent the rest of her life time devoted to find a cure for her. Which is how the Hunterian came to be into the Whistler estate as he bequeathed it to them in honor of his wife.

Gregory Becker said...

That is exactly how an artist should be paid.

Jeanne said...

I am delighted to find your blog. I will check on it often. I also saw your website and really love your paintings. Jeanne

Philip Koch said...

Stape, that portrait of Whistler you open the post with is just too over the top. I had to go lie down after seeing it.

jeff f said...

Walter Greaves was a student of Whistler's.

Deb said...

wow, this will teach me to leave for a couple of days.. this is just incredible stuff...
May I ask how you would define the major characteristics of the Barbizon school, and actually, the Luminists also. This is really the only art history I've ever gotten, and I'm desperately trying to wrap my brain around it all..
What the heck is that thing on top of Whistler's head???

Stapleton Kearns said...

Walter:
Thanks,I wish I could see that video.
I know a Dumond student who is still alive,
Can't be too many of those.
........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeremy;
No Hawthorne is later,but more importantly he is stylistically later.
Because of his book and the long history of the Cape school of art, lots of painters today know Hawthorne. I don't know that I would put him into the level of painters that we have been discussing. I imagine I just angered a number of you, but I just did Whistler, and soon I will do William Merrit Chase and Childe Hassam,Hawthorne is not going to make as short a list as I am writing, besides he was to my knowledge mostly a figure painter.
That criterion has already caused me to skip over Homer, Eakins, William Sidney Mount ,Eastman Johnson and Sully.I have been postying landscape painters and only a spotty representation of those. This is an enormous subject and I am doing a very digested version.Please send any complaints about this to;

Harry Reed
United States Capitol building
Washington D.C.

..........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeff;
IO have a book on Whistler in my Library, and when I wrote this post, I thought there was so much I could have included. The Peacock Room comes to mind. Also I could have done a long post on his etchings.
...............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Gregory:
Congratulations on getting into the show, sorry about the chicken piece though.If they had been ducks you would probably have been fine, unless of course I was on the jury.
...........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeanne;
Thank you.
.................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Philip:
When I ran into that portrait I had to use it. I was going to use the Wm. Chase, but this one is more........rock and roll.He looks like Zappa.
.........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Deb;
I will define those things.I think that a lot of people didn't get American Art history in school. It is essential to the formation of aesthetic taste to know it. How can you make good paintings if you don't know what the look like.We are also going to learn the to tell Heppelwhite from Eastlake and Richardsonian Romanesque from Federal before we are done here. That thing on top of his head is a peculiar tuft of gray hair that was part of his dandified appearance. It is in all of the portraits of him.
........Stape

mariandioguardi.com said...

A Whistler book was the first Art book I bought when I started painting.Apparently he never did liked his portraits, which I admired SO much. I had always thought I would paint in a Whistler manner.Just goes to show you that an independently trained artists will always paint they way they paint, personality creeps in and life is revealed. My work couldn't be further from Whistler's. I learned so many lessons about design, composition and scale looking at Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother, at Museum D'Orsay. Now those lessons I could incorporate and did into my work. Brilliant. reproductions will never give the masterwork the full sense of what was accomplished.