Feast of Darks

Christine Stansell

  • Whistler, Women and Fashion by Margaret MacDonald and Susan Grace Galassi et al
    Yale, 243 pp, £35.00, May 2003, ISBN 0 300 09906 1
  • Whistler and His Mother: An Unexpected Relationship by Sarah Walden
    Gibson Square, 242 pp, £15.99, July 2003, ISBN 1 903933 28 5

The most notorious American painter of the late 19th century, a dandy who used his gift for showmanship and his Paris education to make himself the prototype Victorian aesthete, James McNeill Whistler had started out as a dutiful son, following his father to West Point before turning his back on the Army to pursue the artist’s life in Paris. He arrived there in 1855, at the height of the craze for the vie de bohème, and like many other young men, found the newly minted bohemian identity an easy way to ratify a genius that had yet to find expression in real work.

He moved to London in the 1860s, to a scene dominated by staid academic painters. Whistler gallivanted around town in dapper costumes, showing off a hyperbolically fastidious taste in weekly salons held at his studio and issuing large pronouncements on art for art’s sake. He became a London character, playing to the newspapers; and the press, especially the caricaturists, loved him. His reputation edged into buffoonery, but he didn’t seem to mind so long as he got attention. The disastrous 1877 libel suit with Ruskin, who had ridiculed one of his paintings, bankrupted him – he won a farthing’s damages, but no costs – but it also brought him publicity across two continents as a fighter for modern art, an American who dared to take on the British establishment.

A century later, we have seen so many variations of the artist as showman that Whistler’s antics seem merely quaint. His legacy hasn’t worn well. Compared with his closest American contemporaries, John Singer Sargent (also working in England), Thomas Eakins (determinedly homebound) and Mary Cassatt (moving between France and America), Whistler seems lightweight. He possessed neither Sargent’s bravura as a portraitist at the centre of the Anglo-American beau monde nor Eakins’s moral passion at the American edges; and he lacked Cassatt’s technique and originality. He painted some stunning portraits, but they are a handful against Sargent’s prolific output of consistently fine (if unsurprising) paintings; and nothing he did compares to Cassatt’s arresting images of women’s everyday lives. From his sophisticated expatriate perch, Whistler does not seem to have noticed the unabashedly American Eakins, but it’s clear that he came nowhere near Eakins’s painterly integrity or his influence.

Whistler mostly couldn’t be bothered to learn from other artists. He knew many grand people, from Baudelaire to Wilde to Proust, and basked in the admiration of some important painters, notably Degas and Monet, but his comments on art were either self-inflating pronouncements or insults (a Sargent portrait, he said, showed the ‘cleverness of an officer who cuts up oranges into fancy shapes after dinner’). He was ‘patchily informed about the Old Masters’, according to Sarah Walden, ‘and seems to have taken surprisingly little trouble to familiarise himself with their works or techniques’. Except for a trip to the Netherlands to study Hals, he never joined in pilgrimages to aesthetically hallowed sites, but looked at paintings in nearby museums instead. A plan to visit the Prado with Courbet, his old teacher, fizzled out when he got to Biarritz. ‘Even during his stay in Venice,’ Walden writes, ‘he never managed to see at first hand the greatest pictures of his idol Velázquez.’

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