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.

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Anna Dooling