1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Whistler, James Abbott McNeill
WHISTLER, JAMES ABBOTT McNEILL (1834-1903), American artist, was born at Lowell, Massachusetts, on the 10th of July 1834. His father was Major G. W. Whistler, and his mother one of the Baltimore family of Winans. He was first heard of in Europe in 1857, when he had already been an art student, in Paris, in the studio of Gleyre. His first etchings, those known as “The French Set,” were the means of bringing him under the notice of certain people interested in art, but the circulation of these first, like that of his later etchings, has always, of necessity, been more limited than their fame. The impressions from each plate are generally few. It was still in etching that Whistler continued his labours, and, coming to London in 1859, it appears, he almost at once addressed himself to the chronicle of the quaint riverside buildings and the craft of the great stream — the Thames “below Bridge.” The “French Set” had included De Hooch-like or Nicholas Maes-like genre pieces, such as “La Vieille aux loques,” the “Marchande de moutarde,” and “The Kitchen,” this last incomparably improved and perfected by the retouching that was accomplished a quarter of a century after the first performance. The Thames series of sixteen etchings, wrought chiefly in 1859, disclosed a new vision of the river, in which there was expressed, with perfect draughtsmanship, with a hitherto unparalleled command of vivacious line, the form of barge and clipper, of warehouse, wharf and waterside tavern. “The Pool,” “Thames Police” and “Black Lion Wharf” are perhaps the finest of this series. Before it was begun, Whistler, ere he left Paris, had proceeded far with a plate, existing only in the state of trial proof, and, in that, of extreme rarity. It is called “Paris, Île de la Cité,” and has distinct and curious manifestations of a style to be more generally adopted at a later period. For several years after the completion of the “Sixteen Etchings,” Whistler etched comparatively little; but about 1870 we find him entering what has been described as his “Leyland period,” on account of his connexion with the wealthy shipowner and art patron, Mr Frederick R. Leyland, of Prince's Gate, whose house became famous for Whistler's Peacock Room, painted in 1877. In that period he worked greatly in dry-point. The “Model Resting,” one of the most graceful of his figure pieces, and “Fanny Leyland” — an exquisite instance of girl portraiture — are notable performances of this time. To it also belong the largely conceived dry-points, so economical of means and endowed with so singular a unity of effect, the “London Bridge” and “Price's Candle-works.” A little later came the splendid visions of the then disappearing wooden bridges of Battersea and Putney, and the plate “The Adam and Eve,” which records the river-front of old Chelsea. This, however, is only seen in perfection in the most rare proofs taken before the publication by the firm of Hogarth. From these plates we pass almost imperceptibly to the period of the Venetian etchings, for in 1879, at the instance of the Fine Art Society, Whistler made a sojourn in Venice, and here he wrought, or, to speak accurately, commenced, not only the set of prints known as the “Venice Set,” but also the “Twenty-six Etchings” — likewise chiefly, though not wholly, of Venice — issued later by the firm of Dowdeswell. One or two of the minor English subjects of the “Twenty-six Etchings” — those done after the artist's return from Venice — give indications of the phase reached more clearly in certain little prints executed a few years later, and, with perhaps one exception, never formally published. “Fruit Shop,” “Old Clothes Shop,” and “Fish Shop, busy Chelsea,” belong to this time. Later, and bent upon doing justice to quite different themes, which demand different methods, the ever flexible artist again changes his way, and — not to speak of the dainty little records of the places about the Loire, which in method have affinity with the pieces last named — we have “Steps, Amsterdam,” “Nocturne, Dance House,” with its magical suggestion of movement and light, and the admirable landscape “Zaandam.” With the mention of these things may fitly close a sketch of Whistler's periods in etching; but before proceeding to other branches of his work, the main characteristics of the whole series of etchings (of which, in Wedmore's Whistler's Etchings, nearly 300 examples are described) should be briefly indicated. These main characteristics are precision and vivacity; freedom, flexibility, infinite technical resource, at the service always of the most alert and comprehensive observation, an eye that no picturesqueness of light and shade, no interesting grouping of line, can ever escape — an eye, that is, that is emancipated from conventionality, and sees these things therefore with equal willingness in a cathedral and a mass of scaffolding, in a Chelsea shop and in a suave nude figure, in the façade of a Flemish palace and in a “great wheel” at West Kensington. Mr Whistler's pictures have as a chief source of their attractiveness those mental qualities of alertness and emancipation. Charm of colour and of handling enhance the hold which they obtain upon such people of taste as may be ready to receive them. There are but very few of them, however, at least very few oil pictures, when one considers the number of years since the artist began to labour; and one notable fact must be at once understood — the admitted masterpieces in painting belong almost entirely to the earlier time. “Sarasate” is an exception, and “Lady Archibald Campbell,” and in its smaller, but still charming, way “The Little Rose of Lyme Regis”; but even these — save the “Little Rose” — are of 1885 or thereabouts. A few years earlier than they are the “Connie Gilchrist,” the “Miss Alexander,” and the “Rosa Corder,” and the Thames “Nocturnes”; but we go farther back to reach the “Portrait of the Painter's Mother,” which is now in the Luxembourg; the “Portrait of Carlyle,” now at Glasgow; the “Cremorne Gardens,” the “Nocturne, Valparaiso Harbour,” the “Music Room,” with little Miss Annie Haden standing by the piano while her mother plays, and the “White Girl,” or “Little White Girl,” in which Whistler shows the influence, but never the domination, of the Japanese. Of the slight but always exquisitely harmonious studies in water colour, undertaken by Whistler in his middle period, none call for special notice. To the middle time, too, belong, not perhaps all of his slight but delicately modelled pastels of the figure, but at least his more universally accepted pastels of Venetian scenes, in which he caught the sleepy beauty of the Venetian by-way. In pastel, as in painting, in water colour and in etching, Whistler has never been unmindful of the particular qualities of the medium in which he has worked, nor of the applicability of a given medium to a given subject. The result, accordingly, is not now a victory and now a failure, now a “hit” and now a “miss,” but rather a succession of triumphs great and small. One other medium taken up by Whistler must now be mentioned. His lithographs — his drawings on the stone in many instances, and in others his drawings on that “lithographic paper” which with some people is the easy substitute for the stone to-day — are perhaps half as numerous as his etchings. Mr T. R. Way has catalogued about a hundred. Some of the lithographs are of figures slightly draped; two or three of the very finest are of Thames subjects — including a “nocturne” at Limehouse, of unimaginable and poetic mystery; others are bright and dainty indications of quaint prettiness in the old Faubourg St Germain, and of the sober lines of certain Georgian churches in Soho and Bloomsbury. An initiator in his own generation, and ever tastefully experimental, Whistler no doubt has found enjoyment in the variety of the mediums he has worked in, and in the variety of subjects he has brilliantly tackled. The absence of concentration in the Whistlerian temperament, the lack of great continuity of effort, may probably prove a drawback to his taking exactly the place as a painter of oil pictures, which, in other circumstances, his genius and his taste would most certainly have secured for him. In the future Whistler must be accounted, in oil painting, a master exquisite but rare. But the number and the range of his etched subjects and the extraordinary variety of perception and of skill which he has brought to bear upon the execution of his nearly three hundred coppers, ensure, and have indeed already compassed, the acceptance of him as a master among masters in that art of etching. Rembrandt's, Van Dyck's, Méryon's, Claude's, are, in fact, the only names which there is full warranty for pronouncing beside his own.
No account of Whistler's career would be complete without a reference to his supremely controversial personality. In 1878 he brought a libel action against Ruskin for his criticisms in Fors Clavigera (1877). Ruskin had denounced one of his nocturnes at the Grosvenor Gallery as “a pot of paint flung in the public face.” After a long trial, Whistler was awarded a farthing damages. His examination caused much interest, especially in artistic circles, on account of his attitude in vindication of the purely artistic side of art; and it was in the course of it that he answered the question as to how long a certain “impression” had taken him to execute by saying, “All my life.” His eccentricity of pose and dress, combined with his artistic arrogance, sharp tongue, and bitter humour, made him one of the most talked-about men in London, and his mots were quoted everywhere. He followed up his quarrel with Ruskin by publishing a satirical pamphlet. Whistler v. Ruskin: Art v. Art Critics. In 1885 he gave his Ten o'Clock Lecture in London, afterwards embodied in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890). The substance of this flippantly written and amusing outburst was an insistence on the liberty of the artist to do what was right in his artistic eyes, and the inability of the public or the critics to have any ideas about art worth considering at all. In 1895 another quarrel, with Sir William Eden, whose wife's portrait Whistler had painted, but refused to hand over, came into the courts in Paris; and Whistler, though allowed to keep his picture, was condemned in damages. In later years he lived mainly in Paris, but he returned to live in London in 1902; and he died on the 17th of July 1903 at 74 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. In 1888 he had married Mrs Goodwin, widow of E. W. Goodwin, the architect, and daughter of J. B. Philip, the sculptor; she died in 1896, leaving no children. In 1886 he became president of the Royal Society of British Artists (a title at which afterwards he scoffed); and he took a leading part later in founding the International Art Society, of which he was the first president. His “Nocturne in blue and silver” was presented to the National Gallery after his death by the National Art Collection Fund.
See also T. R. Way and G. R. Dennis, The Art of J. McN. Whistler (1901); F. Wedmore, Mr Whistler's Etchings; Théodore Duret, Histoire de J. McN. Whistler et de son œuvre (1904); Mortimer Menpes, Whistler as I knew him; W. G. Bowdoin, Whistler, the Man and his Work (1902); Catalogue of Memorial Exhibition (International Society, 1905); and E. R. and J. Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler (1905).
- Whistler quarrelled with Leyland, and eventually painted his life-size portrait as a devil with horns and hoofs.