Published: August 5, 2003
He started his career in Paris and then settled permanently in London. After some early realistic paintings Whistler linked himself to the avant-garde with “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl,” 1862, a full-length portrait of his Irish mistress, posed in a white dress against a white background. By contrast, his deeply felt “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: The Artist’s Mother,” 1872, is restricted in color and severe in composition.
Whistler’s reputation for impudence and artistic genius was confirmed when, unbeknownst to his patron, ship owner Frederick Leyland, he mischievously gilded shelves, painted leather walls and added opulent gold-leaf peacock motifs to what became known as the Peacock Room in Leyland’s London residence. The owner angrily protested this audacious, unauthorized redecorating theme and the fee the artist demanded, further enhancing Whistler’s contrarian standing.
At the height of his powers Whistler’s paintings emphasized simplified forms and color harmony and design in a style that ran counter to Victorian norms by appealing to the eye rather than expressing ideas or emotions. He was at his best in poetic nocturnal scenes along the Thames, when moonlight encouraged mystery and imagination.
In 1877 Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” a blurry composition depicting nighttime fireworks over the Thames, was savagely attacked by the leading Victorian art critic, John Ruskin. Whistler sued for libel and won the verdict, but was awarded only one farthing and was bankrupted by court costs.
To escape, the artist went to Venice in 1879 to produce a set of etchings. Rather than depicting familiar tourist sites, he chose unconventional views, focusing on essential architectural elements and long vistas, back alleys, quiet canals and isolated squares. These new and innovative approaches distinguished his work from that of his contemporaries.
Whistler’s achievements are showcased in “Whistler and His Circle in Venice,” organized by Eric Denker, curator of prints and drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where the exhibition was seen earlier this year. The more than 100 etchings, pastels, watercolors and oil paintings will be on view at Manhattan’s Grolier Club, September 17 through November 22.
The expressive power and experimental nature of Whistler’s etchings and pastels (such as “The Steps” of 1880 from the Freer Gallery of Art collection) reestablished his sagging standing in England. His fresh vision and approach to etching, as exemplified by such 1879-1880 masterpieces as “Ponte del Piovan,” “San Biagio” and “The Traghetto, No. 2,” launched an etching revival that restored printmaking to prominence and had a profound effect on development of the medium. Today, Whistler is considered among the greatest printmakers in the history of art.
Denker’s fully illustrated, 160-page catalog, published by Merrill Publishers Limited in association with the Corcoran and the Freer, is priced at $39.95 (hardcover) and $29.95 (soft cover).
For its centenary tribute, the Baltimore Museum of Art has mounted “Whistler and Cassatt: Americans Abroad” (through October 12), 100 works on paper documenting the influence of Europe on expatriates Mary Cassett and Whistler. Highlights include selections from the museum’s extensive holdings of Whistler etchings, including the “French Set,” “Thames Set” and 30 vignettes of canals, bridges and entryways from “Etchings of Venice.”
Among the latter, “The Balcony, Venice,” 1879-80, and “The Doorway,” 1879-80, demonstrate the artist’s ability to capture Venice’s special light and watery character in compositions that make interesting views out of mundane settings. The Cassatts feature depictions of mothers and children and domestic interiors.
Perhaps the most appealing and attractive centenary show has been “Whistler, Women, and Fashion,” an inspired, first in-depth exploration of the artist’s career-long predilection for making fashion an integral part of his art. Organized by The Frick Collection curator Susan Grace Galassi and Margaret F. MacDonald, a leading Whistler scholar at the Centre for Whistler Studies at the University of Glasgow, with Aileen Ribero, art historian at London’s Courtland Institute, as costume consultant, it was on view this spring and summer at The Frick.
As Galassi put it, “Whistler lived and breathed fashion.” This was apparent from his own dandified clothing and was documented in the ten masterful, full-length oil portraits of women at The Frick. Some 60 prints, drawings, pastels, costume designs, etchings, watercolors and period costumes placed the Whistler canvases in context.
The quality of the oils relies less on the beauty of the sitters and their costumes than on the painter’s deft blending of color harmonies, compositions and bravura technique.
Probably the most familiar image was “Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl,” 1864, on loan from Tate, London, featuring Whistler’s slim Irish model and mistress, Joanna Hiffernan. Posed demurely in front of a mantelpiece mirror, she sparkles in a simple white muslin garment that reflects the influence of Pre-Raphaelite artistic dress.
European and Japanese sources were apparent in the elegant pink chiffon tea gown ornamented with rosettes that Whistler designed for Frances Leyland, wife of that important patron, in “Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink,” 1871-74. The harmony between the arresting costume and the abundantly floral décor of the room, also designed by the artist, captures the spirit of the Aesthetic movement.
For “Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander,” 1873, Whistler drew on the inspiration of Velazquez’s “Infantas” to design the dress for his 8-year-old subject. She posed some 70 times for the portrait.
In “Arrangement in Black: La Dame au brodequin jaune – Portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell,” 1882-84, Whistler posed an aristocratic actress in elegant street clothes akin to riding habits and men’s wear, stylish, functional clothing that was fashionable for women working outside the home, and that he designed.
Also on view were two fascinating likenesses of Valerie, Lady Meux, a beautiful butcher’s daughter who married a brewery baron. In “Arrangement in Black: Lady Meux,” 1881, she appears in a relatively modest, albeit clinging, black gown with a gaggle of diamonds and a long white fur wrap slipped over her shoulder. Her profile pose in a form-fitting satin and chiffon dress in “Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux,” 1881-82, emphasizes her voluptuous figure and confident gaze. In each case this alumna of the demimonde unabashedly flaunts her wealth and sex appeal.
Also reunited for this exhibition were two likenesses of Whistler’s sister-in-law, Ethel Birnie Philip: “Mother of Pearl and Silver: The Andalusian,” 1888-90, and “Red and Black: The Fan,” 1891-94. Each reflects the painter’s continuing interest in Spanish couture.
Among the works on paper in the show were depictions of Whistler’s later mistress, Maud Franklin, and highly personal studies of his beloved wife, Beatrice, including an especially poignant lithograph on her deathbed.
This rewarding exhibition and its fine catalog represented significant new contributions to Whistlerian knowledge. The informative, illustrated, 243-page catalog, published by The Frick in association with Yale University Press, is a good buy for $50 (hardcover) and $35 (soft cover).
Until February 1, the Freer is showing Whistler’s “Amsterdam Set,” 1889 etchings that are widely considered to be his finest achievements as a printmaker. Its standouts include “The Embroidered Curtain,” often called his best print, along with “Pierrot,” which Whistler called his favorite Amsterdam print.
The Freer is also hosting intriguing displays that examine Whistler’s role in revolutionizing the design of art exhibitions by recreating two of his most daring and influential installations. Reflecting both his customary attention to detail and his flair for showmanship, the décor of these shows broke with established exhibition practices of crowded artworks in drab galleries. (Samuel F.B. Morse’s grand “Gallery of the Louvre,” 1831-33, on loan from the Terra Museum of American Art, depicts an old-fashioned floor-to-ceiling installation.)
One exhibition, organized by David Park Curry, curator of American Arts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, will recreate the audacious 1883 show the artist designed for London’s Fine Art Society. Some 50 etchings, including “Nocturne Palaces” and “Turkeys,” both 1878 or 1879, will be arranged on white felt walls animated by vivid touches of yellow and festooned with butterflies. There will be yellow chairs and sofas and attendants garbed in white and yellow uniforms, as in the original exhibition.
In another gallery, Freer curator Myers will restage Whistler’s pink-and-grey themed installation at London’s Dowdeswell Gallery in 1884. Featured with the color scheme, furnishings and guards’ outfits reflect what the artist called “Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey.” Many of the nearly 70 Whistler paintings, watercolors and pastels that hung in the original show will be on view. Among the highlights will be such oils as “Chelsea Shops,” early 1880s, and “Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea Church,” probably 1884. Standout watercolors include “Harmony in Violet and Amber,” 1881-84, and “Pink Note: Shelling Peas,” 1883 or 1884.
Whistler began the single-artist exhibition tradition, and made an event out of it in ways that transformed the art marketplace, say Curry and Myers. “He made the gallery itself — its colors, decorations and carefully hung pictures — the biggest work of art,” Myers observes. By making the exhibition a happening and attracting publicity, Whistler sold more art. These two shows at the Freer will make for fascinating viewing.
One of the most welcome and anticipated exhibitions in this centennial year is “After Whistler: The Artist and His Influence on American Painting,” guest curated by a leading Whistler authority, Linda Merrill, at the High Museum of Art (November 22 through February 8) and Detroit Institute of Arts (March 6 through May 30). This is the first major show to explore the influences of Whistler’s paintings on American artists.
Featured will be a dozen Whistler canvases juxtaposed with more than 50 paintings by about 40 American artists. The most familiar Whistlers will be “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl,” 1862, and “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” 1875. Whistler’s dignified self-portrait, “Arrangement in Grey: Portrait of the Painter,” circa 1872, contrasts with William Merritt Chase’s jaunty view of his fellow painter in 1885.
Chase was the American painter most influenced by Whistler, says Merrill. His “Lydia Field Emmet,” circa 1892, would not have looked out of place among The Frick fashion portraits.
The exhibition “demonstrates how his American contemporaries were affected by Whistler’s aesthetic principles, printing techniques, color schemes, compositional strategies, subject matter and abstract titles,” says Merrill. The compositions are, indeed, striking.
Numerous shows and events are planned in Glasgow, where large holdings of his art, artist’s materials, artifacts and archival documents make the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow a world hub of Whistleriana. The University’s Centre for Whistler Studies is publishing an edition of its 10,000 letters of Whistler correspondence.
Through October 4 the Hunterian will host exhibitions on the life of his mother (including the celebrated portrait, on a rare loan from the Musée d’Orsay), his depictions of women, his printmaking oeuvre and his influences in Scotland. An international Whistler conference is scheduled for September 3-6.
A man of many parts, Whistler’s attributes and shortcomings seem well conveyed in this year’s centenary exhibitions and publications. This massive display of his life and work suggests that, at long last, the eccentricities and public squabbles upon which his legend was built have been overtaken by the magnitude and beauty of his diverse artistic output.
While obdurately doing things his way, James McNeill Whistler bequeathed a legacy of timeless, influential art. Today, with his work in most of the world’s important museums, his place as one of our finest artists seems secure.
The Grolier Club is at 47 East 60th Street in New York City. For information, 212-838-6690. The Baltimore Museum of Art is at 19 Art Museum Drive. For information, 410-396-7100 or visit www.artma.org. The Freer Gallery of Art is at 12th Street and Independence Avenue, SW, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. For information, 202-357-2700 or visit www.asia.si.edu. The High Museum of Art is at 1280 Peachtree Street, NE, in Atlanta. For information, 404-733-4400. The Detroit Institute of Arts is at 5200 Woodward Avenue. For information, 313-833-7900 or visit www.dia.org. The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery is at the University of Glasgow, 82 Hillhead Street. For information, 0141-330-5431.
By Stephen May
This year marks the centennial of the death of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), the American-born expatriate painter, printmaker, designer, wit, dandy, champion of aestheticism and forerunner of Modernism. A spate of exhibitions in this country and abroad are commemorating the occasion with diverse displays of his art and influence.
A publicity-seeking gadfly and artistic provocateur par excellence, Whistler was arguably the most misunderstood artist of his day. Although he has been the subject of numerous books and scholarly studies, he remains an enigma, a gifted and innovative artist whose reputation as an over-the-top personality continues to obscure his significant accomplishments and his important impact on the art world.
The lineup of 2003 Whistler exhibitions — and the accompanying scholarship — suggest that with the remove of a century from his idiosyncratic persona, overdue attention is being focused on his serious dedication to his work, his genuine achievements as an artist and his influence as an exhibition designer.
The son of a civil engineer, Whistler first saw the light of day in Lowell, Mass., where his birthplace, a comfortable wooden structure at 243 Worthen Street, is now the Whistler House Museum. It is filled with artifacts and artwork, including a letter from the artist’s father announcing his son’s birth, a portrait of his father facing a life-size oil copy of Whistler’s celebrated likeness of his mother, and a room of fine Whistler etchings. The house is maintained by the Lowell Art Association and open to the public.
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