‘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.

People sometimes rebuke Whistler, as they rebuke Pound, for being noisy and obstreperous, but the polemics – the Ruskin trial, and the ‘Ten O’Clock’ lecture (reprinted in the Gentle Art of Making Enemies) – were absolutely necessary, though they would have been nothing without the genuineness and purity of his art. His aestheticism and art-for-art’s-sakeism were at least half the truth, and at the moment of his ‘Ten O’Clock’ lecture they were the most important one. The stance was deliberately partial and extreme and in fact was corrected by dicta of his on other occasions, as when he wrote: ‘If you paint a young girl, youth should scent the room: a thinker, thought should be in the air; an aroma of the personality.’ This is certainly true of his Cicely Alexander and Carlyle portraits, and one is astonished that Roger Fry could have said that his painting ‘lacked humanity’ and could see no more than pure abstract design in the mountainous and disturbing outline of the overcoat and hat in the Carlyle. Where Whistler’s outlook grows more dubious is in his fantasisings over the social role of the pure artist, as ‘the Master’, ‘the chosen’ etc. It is striking, by the way, how extraordinarily Nietzschean at certain points the ‘Ten O’Clock’ lecture becomes:

The artist, in fullness of heart and head, is glad, and laughs aloud, and is happy in his strength, and is merry at the pompous pretension – the solemn silliness that surrounds him.

  For Art and Joy go together, with bold openness, and high head, and ready hand – fearing naught, and dreading no exposure.

It required an aesthete of Whistler’s calibre to puncture the Oscar Wildean ‘aesthetic’ movement, and how funnily he did it! ‘The voice of the aesthete is heard in the land, and catastrophe is upon us ... Listen! There never was an artistic period. There never was an Artloving nation.’ So many remarks in his lecture hit their target. ‘People have acquired the habit of looking, as who would say, not at a picture, but through it, at some human fact, that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better their mental and moral state.’ But what is nice, too, is that the fairest and most generous review the lecture received came from its butt, Oscar Wilde. He praised ‘the pure and perfect beauty of many of its passages: ‘passages delivered with an earnestness which seemed to amaze those who had looked on Mr Whistler as a master of persiflage merely, and had not known him, as we do, as a master of painting also. For that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, is my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr Whistler himself entirely concurs.’

There have been quite a number of biographies of Whistler since the lengthy and allegedly ‘authorised’ one by the artist Joseph Pennell and his wife, published in 1908. The Pennells are the sole source for various facts and reported conversations; nevertheless there is such an ocean of Whistleriana, and the anecdotes come in such a variety of versions, that there will always be room for a further Life. The present one, by the art historians Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval, makes large claims. Whistler, say the authors, fabricated innumerable fictions about his own life, which he then began to believe himself, and his biographers (with the single exception of James Laver) have been gullible enough to go along with them. ‘Time and time again they have been seduced by the mythology and have separated the colourful and controversial character from the key element of his life, his art. These myopic biographies, though usually well-intentioned, have done little or nothing to set the measure of his achievement, examine the context of his life or to explore the real man behind the façade.’

The writers undoubtedly put some facts straight for the first time, such as that the painter’s friendship with the Fenian John O’Leary did not end in 1855, as many biographers assert, but went on for most of the rest of his life. They also throw somewhat more light on why, in 1866, Whistler took it into his head (‘in an afternoon’, according to his own account) to take ship to Valparaiso. But the full truth, as they admit, is still to be discovered; and short of sending Norman Sherry to Valparaiso I suppose we shall never know it.

I am not sure, all the same, that the authors’ broader claims can be said to stand up. One may take as a ‘control’ Stanley Weintraub’s Whistler of 1974. It is a much livelier read than Anderson and Koval’s book, and in a sense for the reason they suggest. Certainly there are more Whistler anecdotes and, the source of these highly enjoyable stories being quite often Whistler himself, we may suppose that some of them are thumping lies (or ‘mythology’). But then, the objection suggests itself, Whistler was not quite a Ford Madox Ford and did not positively demand to be believed. When he denied that he, a distinguished Southerner, could have been born in the horrid industrial Northern town of Lowell, he meant it as a joke. (‘No, the time has gone by when a man shall be born without being consulted.’) But whether the stories he told were true or not – for instance that, having to meet Thackeray at dinner, but his best clothes being in pawn, he patrolled the hotel corridor till someone put out a pair of patent leather shoes of suitable size – matters less than the fact that he told them.

It is here that, by contrast, Anderson and Kovel run into a problem. By ‘examining the context’ of Whistler’s life, they mean supplying the art-historical background, and in practice this works out rather awkwardly. For example, in the chapter describing Whistler’s arrival in Paris, they give us a highly informative lecture on the art-scene in Paris: the longrunning combat between the Ingres and Delacroix camps, the vicissitudes of government control of the Salon juries, the 1855 Exposition Universelle etc. The trouble is, this account is only indirectly relevant to Whistler as a 21-year-old art student. Thus it entails telling us that the Exposition ‘must’ have fuelled his enthusiasm for France, that he was ‘well aware’ of the Ingres-Delacroix debate, that ‘it seems inconceivable’ that he didn’t visit Courbet’s current exhibition, and that he was ‘almost certainly aware’ of Baudelaire’s article ‘On the Heroism of Modern Life’, though how much he had absorbed it is ‘far from clear’. The effect, as will be seen, is to furnish the narrative with token or dummy events – things that Whistler may, ‘must’ or can be assumed to have done – and this gives it a prosthetic or sawdusty quality.

Anderson and Koval are champions of Whistler the artist but hardly of Whistler the man. This is reasonable enough, no doubt, for there is a lot that one might say against Whistler, and it would have been taking one’s life in one’s hands to become a friend of his. Still, it hampers these biographers that they do not have much zest or relish for him. It means that they tend to leave out the funniest bits, like the painter’s telegram on the occasion of Oscar Wilde’s wedding, ‘AM DETAINED. DON’T WAIT,’ or his later telegram to Mallarmé, when he heard that Wilde would be attending one of Mallarmé’s mardis: ‘WARN DISCIPLES PRECAUTION FAMILIARITY FATAL KEEP TIGHT GRIP ON PEARLS OF WISDOM.’ For myself, too, I could forgive a man a lot for speaking as he did about hanging the Walker Gallery’s autumn exhibition.

You know, the Academy baby by the dozen had been sent in, and I got them all in my gallery. The baby dead – the baby’s funeral – baby from the cradle to the grave – baby in heaven – babies of all kinds and shapes along the line, not crowded, you know, hung with proper respect for the baby. And on varnishing day, in came the artists – each making for his own baby – amazing! His baby on the line – nothing could be better! And they all shook my hand, and thanked me – and went to look – at the other men’s babies – and then they saw babies in front of them, babies behind them, babies to the right of them, babies to the left of them. And then – you know – their faces fell – they didn’t seem to like it – and – well – ha! ha! they never asked me to hang the pictures again at Liverpool.

It has to be added that, though the authors’ prose is on the whole reasonably workmanlike, it can get very sloppy. In particular, they have a fearful habit of writing ‘both’ when they do not mean it, and when indeed it would mean something quite wrong. ‘Both men never spoke again,’ ‘Both men had become close friends.’ The prose is at its worst in the final chapter (‘Retrospect’), dealing with Whistler’s posthumous reputation: ‘In spite of the years of critical pounding, the shadow of Whistler resolutely refused to dissolve’; ‘Whistler’s art literally begged reinterpretation’ etc. But also, I cannot but think that in this final chapter the authors misrepresent Walter Sickert’s review of the Pennells’ Life of Whistler: ‘Now back in London after his self-imposed exile in France, Sickert realised Whistler’s worst fears and became “the pupil who would sell the soul of his master”. He savaged not only Whistler but, predictably, the Pennells as well ... Sickert continued to undermine Whistler’s reputation for another two decades. Only towards the end of his life did the rhetoric soften, and a sense of forgiveness prevail.’

Now it is true that in his review, written five years after the painter’s death, Sickert makes some sensible criticisms of one or two middle-period Whistlers, done before he had found a new manner, and he laments Whistler’s ‘incessant preoccupation to present himself as having sprung completely armed from nowhere’. But in the same review he gives an altogether rapturous account (it is quoted by Anderson and Koval earlier in their book) of Whistler’s little oil panels or pochades. ‘The extraordinary beauty and truth of the relative colours, and the exquisite precision of the spaces, have compelled infinity and movement into an architectural formula of eternal beauty.’ The review ends with this magnificent tribute to Whistler the man: ‘A charmeur and a dandy, with a passion for work. A heart that was ever lifted up by its courage and genius. A beacon of light and happiness to everyone who was privileged to come within its comforting and brightening rays. If, as it seems to me, humanity is composed of but two categories, the invalids and the nurses, Whistler was certainly one of the nurses.’ It cheers one that Sickert should have written so, seeing that Whistler, for no very good reason, had called him a Judas, and he can scarcely be described as ‘savaging’ his old friend.