‘If I Could Only Draw Like That’

P.N. Furbank

  • The Gentle Art of Making Enemies by James McNeill Whistler
    Heinemann, 338 pp, £20.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 434 20166 9
  • James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth by Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval
    Murray, 544 pp, £25.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 7195 5027 0

There is a curious little circumstance about the painter Whistler which catches at one’s imagination. It concerns his draughtsmanship. William Rothenstein recalls Whistler talking to him contemptuously of Oscar Wilde’s house in Tite Street and doing him a little drawing of it, to illustrate the monotony of such a terrace house. ‘I noticed then,’ says Rothenstein, ‘how childishly Whistler drew when drawing out of his head.’ One might think there was nothing to this, for evidently Whistler was not at that moment trying to create a work of art. But it is reinforced by an anecdote related by Henry Savage Landor. Landor was dining with Whistler (it was in 1896, towards the end of the painter’s life), and in the drawing-room, after dinner, his eye was caught by a skull and a lamp on the grand piano and he suggested that Whistler should sketch this little ‘still-life’. Whistler agreed, produced a large-size visiting card from his pocket, and for an hour drew and re-drew and rubbed out a hundred times what he had drawn, tearing up one card after another in frustration.

‘A child,’ says Landor, ‘could have drawn that skull more faithfully than Whistler did that evening.’ He was amazed when Landor rendered the skull in a few deft strokes, exclaiming: ‘If I could only draw like that I would be a great painter.’

It is a highly-coloured anecdote. Still, there were other occasions, too, when he had doubted whether he could draw. Yet in certain of his etchings and lithographs – for instance, the touching lithograph of his wife, By the Balcony, in the current exhibition at the Tate – one cannot help thinking him a magnificent draughtsman. We thus seem to be faced with the mysterious phenomenon of an artist who could become a fine draughtsman, but only if circumstances (faithfulness to some particular vision) made it absolutely necessary.

It leads one’s thoughts to his general approach to painting. He could paint exceedingly rapidly, but (especially with his portraits) he in fact usually worked with agonising slowness. He would swiftly bring a portrait to what his sitters considered perfection, only for them to find, returning next morning, all the previous day’s work had been wiped out. He worked in wholes; it was, one critic said, as if he were developing a photographic negative. Gerard Manley Hopkins thought that Whistler excelled in his feeling for ‘what I call inscape (the very soul of art)’, and one imagines him as keeping a given ‘inscape’ inviolable and intact over months or years. The upshot seems to be that this notorious swaggerer never for a moment felt tempted to swagger or cheat in his art, and that this vain and egocentric man, not otherwise much burdened by conscience, possessed artistic conscience in the highest degree.

One might say the same of his fellow-American Ezra Pound; and it is no surprise that Pound modelled himself on Whistler (once having himself photographed in the pose of Whistler’s ‘Carlyle’), or that he drew so much encouragement from him. In 1912 he wrote to Harriet Monroe that he regarded Whistler as ‘our only artist’, and that he hoped to ‘carry into our American poetry the same sort of life and intensity which he infused into modern painting’. A wave of enthusiasm comes over one, as it evidently did Pound, when one thinks of all that Whistler managed to do, more or less single-handed, for modern art in Victorian Britain; and as for his direct influence, as one observes it in Sickert, Wilson Steer, Gwen John and Victor Pasmore, it is hard not to think of it as beneficent and inspiring.

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