Printer Friendly

James McNeill Whistler: breaking all the rules: this American expatriate excelled as a painter, printmaker, etcher, lithographer, and gallery designer--all the while doing it his way.

JAMES MCNEILL WHISTLER was as renowned for his radically spare, avant-garde exhibition designs and flamboyant, self-promotional personality as for his artwork. His abrasive and colorful personal style had a profound impact on European and American art. He was the first to declare "Art for Art's Sake," giving his paintings simple names such as "Symphony in White," in the hope that the public would view the entire composition rather than the image the artist suggested by referencing a title.

Marking the centenary of his death is the exhibition "Mr. Whistler's Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London," which re-creates "Arrangement in White and Yellow," and "Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey," two of Whistler's most famous and influential installations. Both were controversial and radically innovative as they challenged long-standing assumptions about the presentation of art. They featured identically framed canvases, hung widely apart, on plain, lightly colored walls--in moderately sized but elegantly appointed rooms--at a time when exhibitions routinely displayed pieces from floor to ceiling with no space between frames.

Whistler's "Arrangement in White and Yellow" opened in February, 1883, at the Fine Art Society in London, showcasing 51 of his etchings, most of which had been completed in Venice in 1879-80. Another landmark exhibit, "Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey," opened in May, 1884, at Dowdeswells' Gallery in London and juxtaposed one life-size portrait of a female model with 66 smaller works. Subjects included scenes of Chelsea (Whistler's neighborhood in London), the Cornish coast, nocturnes set in both London and Amsterdam, and a series of watercolor drawings depicting female models in Whistler's studio.

Whistler was born in 1834 in Lowell, Mass., studied art in Paris from 1855-59, and spent most of the rest of his life in London. He never allied himself with any particular school or style, stubbornly setting himself apart from his contemporaries. As a student, Whistler was strongly influenced by 17th-century Spanish and Dutch art, though he would not visit Amsterdam until 1863. His earliest important oil paintings evidence the realism of Gustave Courbet, featuring the commonplace subjects and vigorous brushwork modeled after the older artist's work. One of the most successful of these is the frigid December scene "The Thames in Ice," (1860). It emphasizes the brooding hulk of a flat-bottomed collier brig used to haul coal, fish, and other heavy goods to London.

Whistler's style changed dramatically in the 1860s. Influenced by Greek sculpture, Asian porcelain, and Japanese prints, he cast aside the idea that the success of a piece of art could be measured by its accuracy as a representation, or the effectiveness with which it told a story or suggested a moral. Instead, he became convinced that an object of oat was best understood as an autonomous creation, to be valued only for its success in organizing color and line into a formally satisfying--and therefore beautiful--whole. Abandoning the idea that paintings should create the illusion of pictorial depth, he developed the flatter, more purely decorative style that he is best known for. This shift is evident in transitional works such as "Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony" (1864-70), but was not complete until the early 1870s, when Whistler began to paint the moody night scenes and restrained portraits that made him famous.

Whistler formally had rejected Courbet's vision of Realism and set out to rebuild his art from scratch. This move toward what was later termed "Aestheticism" led to his greatest creative successes. Aestheticism greatly simplified compositions, reduced portraits to single figures, and employed a limited range of colors. The perfect subject for this severe style was, of course, the fiercely puritanical "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother," produced in 1871. Through exhibitions and caricatures, the painting has become one of the most recognized icons of American art. Ironically, Whistler's Aestheticism was diametrically opposed to the newly developing Impressionist technique just then becoming known to critics. The Impressionist wave made the artist's work appear retrograde in comparison, another factor in his somewhat diminished standing in the public eye.

One of the artist's more notable achievements--as well as confrontations--was his collaboration on the Peacock Room, once the dining room in the London home of shipowner Frederick R. Leyland. To display Leyland's prized collection of Chinese porcelain to best advantage, a lattice of intricately carved shelving and antique gilded leather hung on the walls--designed by a gifted interior architect named Thomas Jeckyll. A painting by Whistler, "The Princess from the Land of Porcelain" (1863-64), occupied a place of honor above the fireplace. Jeckyll nearly had completed his commission when he consulted Whistler--who was then working on decorations for the entrance hall--about the color to paint the dining room shutters and doors. Concerned that the red roses on the leather hangings clashed with the colors in "The Princess," Whistler volunteered to retouch the walls with traces of yellow. Leyland permitted Whistler to make that minor alteration and also to adorn the wainscoting and cornice with a "wave pattern" derived from the design on the leaded glass of the pantry door. Assuming the decoration of the room to be virtually complete, Leyland went back to his business in Liverpool.

In his patron's absence, Whistler was inspired to make bolder revisions. He covered the ceiling with Dutch metal, or imitation gold leaf, over which he painted a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He then gilded Jeckyll's walnut shelving and embellished the wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peacocks. He urged Leyland not to return to London since he did not want his work to be seen before every detail was perfect. Yet, the artist entertained visitors and amused the press in the lavishly decorated room without asking permission of the owner of the house. His audacious behavior, coupled with a dispute over payment for the project, provoked a bitter quarrel between the painter and his patron. Whistler eventually had to settle for half of his original price.

Perhaps in retaliation, Whistler took the liberty of coating Leyland's valuable leather with Prussian-blue paint and depicting a pair of peacocks aggressively confronting each other on the wall opposite "The Princess." Scattered at the feet of the angry birds are the coins (silver shillings) that Leyland refused to pay; the silver feathers on the peacock's throat allude to the ruffled shirts that the shipowner always wore. The poor and affronted peacock has a silver crest feather that resembles the lock of white hair that curled above Whistler's forehead. To make sure that Leyland understood his point, Whistler titled the mural, "Art and Money; or, The Story of a Room." He obtained a blue rug to complete the scheme and rifled the room, "Harmony in Blue and Gold." After concluding his work in March, 1877, the artist never ventured back to see the Peacock Room again.

Despite the furor surrounding its creation, Leyland kept his dining room as Whistler had left it and continued filling the shelves with porcelain until his death in 1892. Twelve years later, the Peacock Room was removed and exhibited in a London art gallery. Having recently acquired "The Princess from the Land of Porcelain," Charles Lang Freer, who later founded the Freer Gallery of Art, purchased the Peacock Room in 1904. The room was taken apart again, and reinstalled in an addition to Freer's house in Detroit, where it was used to showcase his own collection of ceramics.

Though noted for his paintings, Whistler first achieved critical and commercial success as an etcher, producing meticulously drawn prints of working-class life in rural France and London. In fact, he was considered a printmaker in the ranks of Rembrandt van Rijn. Whistler drew more than 500 prints during his lifetime, including the 11 unusually elaborate etchings often referred to as the "Amsterdam Set." An admirer of his brother-in-law Seymour Haden's fine collection of Rembrandt prints, Whistler made regular visits to Haarlem and Dordrecht in Amsterdam during the 1880s, but it was only in 1889 that he remained in Holland long enough to produce a major body of work. Combining the detail and realism of the prints he completed in Paris and London in 1858-61 with the looser more subjective style of the prints he drew in Venice in 1879-80, the plates Whistler made in Amsterdam in late 1889, early 1890 generally are considered to be his greatest accomplishment as an etcher. However, he soon discovered the exceptionally intricate and delicate line work wore down under the pressure of the printing press. Unwilling to produce inferior impressions, the artist abandoned the plates after no more than 30 prints.

Freer purchased 11 impressions of the Amsterdam prints from Whistler in the spring of 1890, eventually assembling an unrivaled collection of 1,100 of Whistler's works on paper: pastels, watercolors, drawings, lithographs, and prints. Due to their fragile nature, the works may be displayed only for short periods of time in modern museums.

In early 1887, Whistler became romantically involved with the artist Beatrix Godwin, whom he married in 1888. In 1892, the Whistlers moved to Paris, where they settled in the aristocratic neighborhood of the Faubourg St. Germain. Almost all of Whistler's lithographs were drawn between 1887 and Beatrix's death from cancer in 1896. The artist used grease crayons to draw on a prepared printing stone, challenging contemporary notions of form and finish. Tranfer lithographs, meanwhile, were made by drawing the crayon onto a piece of paper and then rubbing it onto the stone, which then is etched and inked for printing. Subjects include the Louvre, Luxembourg Gardens, local shops, his home, and portraits of friends and family. They often are sketchy, with large areas left unworked, but offer tender glimpses of the irascible artist as a contented family man.

"Mr. Whistler's Galleries" will be on display through April 4. "Whistler in Paris: Lithographs from the Belle Epoque, 1891-1896" will run through Aug. 15. Both are on view at the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Museums Today
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Previous Article:Rembrandt: a master across three media.
Next Article:NATO expands its boundaries.

Related Articles
Animals in Art: America.
Exhibition to explore the revival of etching as art.
Marks of Distinction: Two Hundred Years of American Drawings and Watercolors from the Hood Museum of Art.
Fishing village inspired display.
Come and see my etchings; James Whistler was a regular visitor to Liverpool as Laura Davis finds out through a new exhibition of his work.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters