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.’
Contemporaries noticed the gap between the substance of his work and the declamations on art designed to underline his importance. Burne-Jones believed he never lived up to his promise: ‘He has evaded the difficulty of his art.’ Degas remarked that ‘it must be very tiring to keep up the role of the butterfly.’ Walter Sickert, who worked for years as his studio assistant, gave him credit for having survived at all in England at the high tide of academicism, but also thought that London had ruined him. Too much time playing the outré celebrity had extinguished Whistler’s nerve, intellect and gravity; he fluttered about among the latest fashions. When the French painters fell in love with Japanese prints, Whistler fell in love with them too, and slapped Japanese motifs all over his paintings, as Sickert observed: ‘Japanese fans were arranged on English shelves, and English ladies . . . were popped into kimonos on Chelsea balconies.’ The work was a hodgepodge of effects grabbed from elsewhere. In Paris, he would have had to test himself against Degas, Cassatt, Monet. In London, he could be a significant modern painter. His conviction of status derived from the circumstances which kept his work from developing.
At its best, Whistler’s work was dreamy, delicate, subtle: these are the usual vectors of praise. Images of breath and mist predominate: Henry James, who once dismissed his paintings as ‘pleasant things’ but later changed his mind, said that it was as if Whistler could breathe paint onto the canvas. The melancholy charm remains, but is there anything more substantial? Whistler, Women and Fashion tries to create a more robust Whistler by bringing together his superb portraits of elegantly dressed women. The book is based on an exhibition held this summer at the Frick in New York. Frick loved portraits – his wonderful collection includes work by Holbein, Rembrandt and Van Dyck – and he bought four of Whistler’s when they came on the market after the artist’s death. There couldn’t be a better place to show the pictures: the dim, stately rooms still have the crepuscular feel of an Edith Wharton setting, and the fashionable women in the paintings look like the fashionable women who once came to the Fricks for the evening and, even better, like the fashionable women right outside on the streets of the Upper East Side. Hung high in the central rotunda, the full-length portraits, their raked perspective exaggerated, floated above the room, not so much figures as vertical masses of tone and colour.
The best portraits are bold, not dreamy. Reds, whites and creams, browns and blacks hover in deep portrait space: the pale little faces of the women are brief intrusions of human presence in swathed columns of drapery and colour. In the stunning picture of Lady Meux – born Susan Langdon, the mistress of a corporal in the Life Guards before she married a brewing heir – with black ground, black gown, black gloves, white furs, Lady Meux is more of a tidy little mannequin than a body, despite the slinky clinging dress.
Looking at the clouds of paint, you can see what Whistler meant when he pretentiously titled his portraits ‘arrangements’ and claimed he was after a ‘poetry of sight’ that was independent of subject matter. He is at his most appealing as an artist of hypersensitive texture, at once ethereal and substantive. But in other ways he was interested in trappings, not paint. While he saw himself as a defiantly modern painter, his preoccupation with gorgeous gowns and special effects – Japanese fans on English shelves – placed his work in reassuring proximity to society portraiture and pretty Pre-Raphaelite studies of melancholy models in arty robes. Whistler touted his love of harmonious art, fashion and design as inspired by the Japanese principle of the unity of the arts, but his pictures could come uncomfortably close to illustration, a tasteful alliance of fashion and interior decorating that would soon be the business of the style magazines. Indeed, Whistler’s attention to fashion constrained his images as much as it released his imagination. Sickert compared his pink and cream portrait of Frances Leyland with a Renoir portrait and reaches a devastating conclusion:
So here we have on the one hand Whistler tying Mrs Leyland’s dress up with little ribbons, and locating her in a confused paradise of his own, and producing a very wreck of a painting, while Renoir, in Paris, makes a classic of a plump little lady, standing simply in her bourgeois salon, in her black silk Sunday dress, as it was sent home by her dressmaker.
Sarah Walden covers such criticisms extensively in her fascinating Whistler and His Mother: An Unexpected Relationship. Scholars rarely acknowledge the limitations of their subject so squarely. Walden, a restorer, was hired by the Louvre to bring the Portrait of the Artist’s Mother: Arrangement in Grey and Black back from decrepitude. She came to admire Whistler’s formal achievement even as she discovered the shoddy methods that led to its deterioration. The book is entrancing. Walden’s is a view we seldom get: the detail of individual brush strokes and choices of paint and varnish. Her respect for the particular lets you see both the good and the bad of the overall construction and the result is absorbing.
Walden gives a workmanlike précis of Whistler’s career, his difficulties after the Ruskin lawsuit, his unproductive prominence in the London press, his uncomfortable relationship with English contemporaries (Sickert is featured extensively), his lame attempts to issue an aesthetic manifesto which would put him in the big league. Walden’s Whistler is given to depressing self-sabotage and laziness: an interpretation which has the virtue of explaining what the Frick curators never addressed – the extremely uneven quality of the work. The portrait of his mother was his great triumph after a lifetime of mixed reviews and sales. Painted in 1871 at a low point in his career, and later used as surety for a loan, the painting came to Paris through the intervention of Whistler’s great friend and champion Stéphane Mallarmé, who rescued it from his creditors by brokering a purchase by the Musée du Luxembourg in 1891. At a time when none of his pictures hung in an English museum, Whistler was embraced by the French. The Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, one newspaper announced, was ‘a work on which the consecration of the centuries seems to have placed the patina of a Rembrandt, a Titian or a Velázquez’.
Despite the acclaim, the painting was hung in a dingy back room at the Luxembourg. It was resurrected in 1932, when the Museum of Modern Art brought it to the United States to tour the country: huge crowds gathered to see it. In Depression-era America, the picture became a patriotic emblem, the masterpiece of the nation’s one internationally famous artist. Walden doesn’t have much to say about its ascent to iconic status. She relies on the notion of Puritanism, that old chestnut which Europeans trot out to explain everything American, to account for the picture’s appeal, and here and there tosses in contemporary references – Don DeLillo, Marilyn Monroe – to gesture toward some quintessential Americanness in Whistler.
It’s when Walden turns to the paintings themselves that her book comes alive. The restorer turns sleuth, ferreting out secrets: thus the misty indeterminateness of line that identifies Whistler as a Modernist turns out, frequently enough, to be a cover-up. Although a fine lithographer – the small pieces were a pleasure of the Frick show – Whistler was never at home transposing line into paint. Unable to get right a hand or an arm, he habitually scraped the paint down to the canvas and started over. When he rubbed out too much, he resorted to his signature misty effects. ‘He became a master of atmospheric evasion,’ Walden observes. ‘Hands tend to be obscured by shadow or safely hidden in clothing, and the outlines of figures are indistinctly conveyed.’
The Portrait of the Artist’s Mother is different: a marvel of serene, uncluttered form and hypersensitive brushwork, a ‘feast of darks’. Walden attributes its success to the moment at which Whistler painted it, a time of terrible crisis in his career, when for once he stopped worrying about his reputation in the art world. Anna Whistler is a monumental yet fragile figure, painted in a tightly compressed range of colour, the raw canvas, miraculously thin paint and grey light taking the picture beyond any hint of Neoclassical imitation. Here, Walden argues, Whistler achieved a momentary reconciliation of the American love of the broad simplified form with European nuance and complex surface.
The marvel is that he did all this with such lamentable methods. Walden took on a painting that was a mess of blanched patches, clotted varnish and feeble contrasts; an older colleague had warned her away from the job. Deterioration is by no means inevitable in painting: the Flemish painters painstakingly prepared surfaces to receive ‘infinitely delicate layers, of almost imperishable materials’. Whistler worked fast and wanted results: consequently he ignored centuries of experience in preparing the canvas, balancing paint pigment and medium, and varnishing. He wanted irreconcilable things, ‘the lustrous depth of a fully saturated pigment and the matt, velvety quality of Japanese ink. He drowned his pigment in diluent, which the insufficiently primed canvas thirstily absorbed.’ He left ‘pigment stranded like dust on the surface of the canvas’. Walden can be scrupulously generous, but it’s more fun when Whistler’s shoddiness gets the better of her, and she talks of his ‘dangerous methods’, ‘dubious additives’ and ‘hazardous techniques’.
She does her best, ‘crawling centimetre by centimetre over that great dark expanse’. The story becomes something of a page-turner. ‘The struggle with the skirt and the dress went on for months’; ‘Shades of black swam before my eyes’; ‘Varnishing day has always been a tense moment.’ She isn’t quite satisfied; there is no triumphant dénouement. Perhaps the book is an attempt to reconcile herself to something less than success. But its charm lies in the meeting of two temperamentally antithetical people: one fastidious, direct and punctiliously honest, the other evasive and heedless. It’s hard to make art, and the wonder is that it issues from such flawed human beings with such mixed motives. The world was too much with Whistler; it seems more helpful to acknowledge the fact than to dress it up. Even so, towards dusk at the Frick, the colours glowed and hovered; and when Walden saw the Portrait of the Artist’s Mother set up in the Louvre’s restoration studio beside Ingres’s great portrait of Napoleon, Anna Whistler more than held her own.