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Whistler's Art and Attitude

During one of the few days he actually appeared for work at the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, James Abbott McNeill Whistler executed a small engraving of an island in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of California. Because he was Whistler, he could not resist adding some wholly superfluous sea gulls to what was supposed to be a scientific rendering. Myth has it that those sea gulls were what got him fired.

The engraving of Anacapa Island is included in the show "Whistler's World," on display at the Nelson Fine Arts Center at Arizona State University through February 4. In its own way, the simple rendering of Anacapa Island and its offending sea gulls summarizes several aspects of Whistler's often stormy career.

It was during his four-month tenure at the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1854 and 1855 that Whistler was to learn the rudiments of etching, an art that was to stand him in good stead when his fortunes hit their lowest ebb. At a time when Whistler's paintings were virtually unsalable, his etchings remained popular.

And those birds! The sea gulls he insisted on including in a scientific drawing show the perverse spirit of playfulness that would later lead him to insult a patron by caricaturing him as a greedy, mean-spirited peacock on the wall of the patron's own dining room. The myth of the sea gulls' leading to his firing shows how Whistler, like his friend and contemporary Oscar Wilde, was as much a personality as an artist, a dandyish man about town famous for his Sunday morning breakfasts, his monocle, his bon mots.

But "Whistler's World" focuses on a more significant aspect of the American artist's life, his role in the revival of etching as an artistic medium in the mid-nineteenth century. The fifty or so images included in "Whistler's World" represent the work of two generations of printmakers, either friends who worked directly with him, or younger men influenced by his published work. The prints, small in scale and intimate in feeling, show artists at their most relaxed, looking at the everyday life around them--watermen on the Thames, little girls in front of a Drury Lane theatre, an old woman standing at a kitchen window. Because the works span the years from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century, the show also traces these artists' growing awareness of the city as a rich source of subject matter. The prints with which Whistler and his followers depict urban life are filled with a sense of romance and of celebration that is foreign to us today.

Whistler was personally acquainted with many of the dozen or so artists whose work is displayed. Francis Seymour Haden was his brother-in-law. Joseph Pennell was a friend and admirer who collaborated with his wife on one of the earliest biographies of the artist. Alphonse Legros was a friend from Whistler's bohemian days in Paris, until the time Whistler knocked him down for calling him a liar.

That was the kind of thing that happened to Whistler all his life. When he knocked down Legros, it spelled the end of a friendship. But when he took on John Ruskin, an all-powerful art historian and critic, it ended in Whistler's humiliation and bankruptcy. "Cantankerous" is the word that appears again and again in descriptions of the artist; G.K. Chesterton devoted an entire essay to how an unpleasant man--"He is inspired with the complete seriousness of sincere malice"--could produce great works of art.

Born in Massachusetts in 1834, Whistler seems to have been a natural sophisticate. After his father was hired to oversee the construction of a railway in Russia and moved the family to St. Petersburg, young Jimmy quickly learned French--the language of the Russian upper classes--and developed a taste for big city life. His family should have known he would never be able to follow in the footsteps of his civil engineer father, nonetheless, Whistler was sent to West Point. Before he was expelled--according to mythology, for identifying silicon as a gas--he cut something of a swath. Once a history instructor chided Whistler for not knowing the date of the battle of Buena Vista and asked him what he would have done had the subject arisen at a dinner party.

"I would leave the room at once," Whistler replied. "I refuse to associate myself with people who could talk of such things at dinner." Always his own best publicist, in later years Whistler liked to strike a rueful attitude and say, "Had silicon been a gas, I would have been a major general."

Whistler was also asked to leave the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, where he turned up after his expulsion from West Point. (Records indicate that he spent six and a half days in the office during one of the four months they tolerated him there.) But he took away with him an invaluable gift, and he was to explore the possibilities of etching as an art form when he found his calling and moved to Paris to be an artist at the age of 21.  

"Etching was used almost totally for reproduction purposes," explains Lucinda Gedeon, curator of collections at the Nelson Fine Arts Center. Until the end of the eighteenth century, etching and its more highly regarded cousin, engraving, were the handmaidens of painting. Craftsmen used them to make reproductions of an artist's work--advertisements of a sort--or for botanical illustrations and charts like the ones the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey produced. But when lithography and later photography were invented, they replaced etching as a reproductive technique. Once it became outmoded, etching was free to be approached aesthetically.

Not since Rembrandt had etching been used as an artistic medium, and the etching revival of the mid-1800s was prompted in part by a major exhibition of Rembrandt's prints and the first published catalogue of his printed work. It was natural that Whistler should look to the Dutch master when he began etching in Paris. Copying a Rembrandt subject, Whistler produced the rather uncharacteristic "Landscape with a Horse," on display at the Nelson. This was before he realized that his heart and soul lay in the city; he was later to say he didn't like the country because it contained too many trees.

Whistler became more his own man with the work in "The Thames Set," done after he moved to London and into the home of his sister and brother-in-law, Francis Seymour Haden. While his paintings from this time, the 1860s and 1870s, run to formal full-length portraits, the etchings show what Whistler was doing on his own time--prowling the river front, sketching the longshoremen and the bridges, and the tangle of masts and rigging that made patterns against the sky. Whistler was one of the first to become enamored with Japanese art--Japan had just been opened to foreign trade--and in the calligraphic feel to some of these prints can be seen the influence of Oriental brushwork.

In his appropriation of Japanese art and in his devotion to the concept of art for art's sake--"The idea that the painting didn't have to tell a story," says ASU associate professor of art history Betsy Fahlman--Whistler is one of the pivotal figures of the history of art and one of the signposts to modernism. Whistler had nothing but disdain for the most popular art of his own day, and he enjoyed sneering at the kind of incident-filled canvases produced by William Powell Frith, whose huge "Derby Day" shows tumblers, young dandies flirting and even dogs about to fight. Whistler, according to fellow artist Mortimer Menpes, liked to walk into galleries where such paintings were displayed and dismiss them with a laugh, a disdainful "Amazing" and a fast exit. Art, Whistler said, should "stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear." He regarded as "claptrap" the evocations of devotion, pity, love and patriotism so popular in Victorian art; the picture of his own mother, for example, is called an "Arrangement," to concentrate attention on the patterns of the colors and to discourage thoughts of filial devotion. Whistler stressed the purely aesthetic in his art by giving his paintings musical names, and it was one of these "Nocturnes" that caused the libel suit that bankrupted him. In the nineteenth century, Fahlman says, artists were producing for the first time large numbers of works that the public simply didn't like. And, for the first time as well, there were critics to write about them.

Exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket" moved John Ruskin to write: "I have seen and heard much of cockney impudence before now, but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." The Nelson's 1880 etching, "Nocturne: Palaces," gives an idea of the kind of abstract, atmospheric picture that excited Ruskin to viciousness, and much of the public to befuddlement. (Whistler, characteristically, called "Falling Rocket" "the finest thing that ever was done.")

Whistler, unwisely, sued Ruskin for libel. The defense trotted out "Falling Rocket," but slyly managed to show it to the jury upside down. Although Whistler won his suit, it was a Pyrrhic victory. He was given damages of one farthing, the smallest coin in circulation, and the cost of the legal battle bankrupted him. Bailiffs carted out his furniture even as he breakfasted, something difficult for even Whistler to pull off.

To rescue him, the Fine Arts Society sent Whistler to Italy and for them he produced "The Venice Set," selections from which appear in the Nelson show. By this time, thanks to Ruskin and his own eccentricity, it was almost impossible for him to get portrait commissions--Whistler forced his sitters to spend endless hours in his studio, and then sometimes failed to deliver the painting--but his etchings remained popular among the more serious connoisseurs of art.  

And, they had sparked a movement. Etching clubs were formed in England, and members trooped out into the country to execute sketches with needles on waxed metal plates. Some artists began to work almost exclusively in the medium. Two such, Haden and Charles Meryon, are included in the Nelson exhibition. While Haden's work shows the influence of his brother-in-law, Meryon's work is distinctly his own. A friend from Whistler's Paris days, Meryon spent his life in and out of insane asylums, his brain, as Baudelaire said, touched by a "cruel demon." Meryon's "Galerie de Notre Dame" is a disturbing picture, with its flock of pigeons in a deserted cathedral gallery. The viewer looks out at the birds from the shadows, like the shadows of Meryon's own madness.

The "second generation" of etchers influenced by Whistler have a distinctly brighter view of the world. With the exception of Frank William Brangwyn, whose "Demolition of the Post Office" puts one in mind of Blake's "dark Satanic mills," these are artists clearly buoyed by the progress they see around them. Joseph Pennell's "Caissons on Vesey Street" shows a construction project in lower Manhattan, and from its dust seems to rise a skyscraper, soaring as hopefully as a Gothic tower.

It must have afforded Whistler some satisfaction in the years before his death in 1903 to see his art finally accepted. His work had been the subject of a huge retrospective in London in 1892, and he had attracted the American millionaire Charles Lang Freer, who bought 13,000 guineas' worth of paintings and prints. "Falling Rocket" finally found a buyer--at four times the price John Ruskin ridiculed--and even museums began collecting Whistlers. And, the etching of Anacapa Island that had started it all has found its way into immortality. Whistler had been right, after all, when he told his superior, "The birds don't detract from the sketch. Anacapa Island couldn't look as blank as that map did before I added the birds."

Whistler is inspired with the complete seriousness of sincere malice.

Whistler prowled the river front, sketching the longshoremen and the bridges and the tangle of masts and rigging.


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