[The following text and accompanying images come from the Internet Archive presentation of the 1903 issue pf The Studio, where this essay immediately precedes “Reminiscences of Whistler by Mortimer Menpes.George P. Landow formatted and corrected the Internet Archive's generally clean text and arranged the images, some of which appear on separate facing pages in the original. Click on all images to enlarge them and to obtain additional information.]

decorative initial It is by no means an exaggeration to say that for practically the whole of his working career of some five and forty years Whistler was a personality of extraordinary prominence in the art world. His remarkable and erratic genius, his strange and surprising individuality, gained him from the very first an amount of attention far beyond that usually bestowed upon an artist who dares to take an independent line in his professional practice. He never had, like so many other men who have since been acclaimed as masters, to labour in obscurity, and it was by no means his fate to spend the whole or even any considerable part of his life in striving for recognition. At no stage in his career was it possible to overlook him; his work was too surprising in character and his assertion of himself too outspoken for anyone to fail to be conscious of his existence. People who worshipped his productions as evidences of the rarest ability, and people who refused to regard him as anything but a charlatan who made up in impudence what he lacked in skill, quarrelled for years over him, and he had the wit to perceive that this antagonism was for him a valuable source of publicity and to keep it alive by numberless ingenious devices. Few men have had a shrewder appreciation of the uses of advertisement or have known better how to help themselves on by playing cleverly on popular enthusiasms. He made up his mind from the first that he would not be ignored, and so long as his importance in the world was admitted he was supremely indifferent as to what n be the feelings of the general public towards him.

But this strenuous advertisement was not in Whistler's case, what it has so often been with other men, a deliberate contrivance for glossing over a want of real ability. He was unquestionably a master of the painter's craft, an artist who within the limits to which he confined himself was without a rival among his contemporaries, and one who is fairly entitled to a place among the great executants whose names are recorded in the history of art. It is, indeed, as an executant preeminently that he has to be considered: an imaginative painter with literary ideas he certainly was not. His pictorial intention, from which he never departed throughout his life, was to realise with exquisite subtlety the most delicate gradations of tone and the most dainty modulations of colour. He had a marvellous faculty of observation, which enabled him to perceive the artistic possibilities of what may be called the commonplaces of the modern world, and he was quite satisfied to exercise this faculty without ever attempting to digress into abstractions for which intellectual rather than visual capacities would be required. It is on this ground that the customary inclusion of him among the impressionists is to be justified; his art may be defined as strictly a record of the impressions made upon him by his surroundings, as the solution of problems set him by circumstances. His inspirations came to him by happy chance, but he had an infallible instinct for recognising what were his most useful opportunities, and he knew exactly how to turn them to the best account artistically.

It may be taken as certain that the essential characteristics of his work were not the result of any system of training to which he was subjected in his youth. Born in 1834, or Russia or America — there is some uncertainty about both the date and place — he came of an American branch of an old English family which had its headquarters in the fifteenth century near Goring on the Thames. As so many other artists have been, he was the son of an engineer, so that he presumably inherited the constructive sense, which is one of the most valuable cornerstones in the equipment of an art worker. At first there seems to have been an idea that he should follow a military career, for he was educated at the United States Military Academy at West Point : but about 1855 or 1856 he was employed in a Government officee as an engraver of maps and charts. This work came to an end, it is said, in consequence of a quarrel with his superiors: and he then betook himself, in 1857, to Paris, where he entered Gleyre's studio. By this master, a sentimental classicist, he may have been taught the grammar of painting, but he assuredly learned nothing else from him. His choice of direction was probably spontaneous, or possibly guided to some extent by artists like Degas, Fantin-Latour, and Bracquemond, who were among his most intimate friends in his student days.

At any rate, when he made his first appearance as an exhibiting painter he had already decided upon the form of practice to which he adhered with little or no modification for the rest of his life. Actually, the first of his performances to come before the public were etchings, and of this fascinating art he soon showed himself to be one of the ablest of modern exponents. The plates which he published in Paris in 1858, and the Thames etchings which he began to issue soon after his arrival in London in 1859, were welcomed as works of unusual significance and laid the foundation of his reputation as an etcher — a reputation which even the severest critics of his pictures have never ventured to dispute. But the verdict of art lovers in general and of artists in particular was by no means unanimous about the value of his canvases. There were some people who became immediately enthusiastic about his surprisingly personal performances, and were ready to accept him without hesitation, because they saw that by exquisite draughtsmanship, marvellously expressive brush work, perfect harmonising of lovely colour, and the most sensitive management of subtle tone, he could make his studies of every-day nature masterly expositions of a pictorial instinct which was as completely balanced as it was unusual in character. There were many others who, measuring him against conventional standards, refused him all consideration, simply because their dislike of what they called his eccentricity blinded them to the noble technical qualities which lay beneath the surface of his art. But neither the often indiscreet praise of his friends nor the bitter antagonism of his enemies could divert him from what he had decided to be his right course. He had in ample measure that sublime self-satisfaction which, where it is allied with real power, helps an artist to achieve great things, and his vanity, though it made him abnormally aggressive in his dealings with everyone who did not see exactly with his eyes, was a factor of much importance in his vehement conviction.

Whistler's etching Thames Warehouses.

The two influences which seem to have played the chief part in forming his style were those of Velasquez and the master draughtsmen of Japan. From the great Spanish painter he acquired his dignity of arrangement and his love of subdued tone; from the Japanese the decorative distribution of lines and colour areas, which is always to be admired in his compositions. Some of his earlier pictures suggest slightly the inspiration of Rossetti: and at one period he was obviously influenced by Albert Moore, almost the only English artist for whom he expressed the frankest admiration. He went so far, indeed, as to paint one or two pictures in intentional imitation of Albert Moore particular mode of expression. But whatever he learned from other men he rearranged and adapted to suit his own point of view. He was much too independent to be a follower of any master, however great ; and he was too convinced of the correctness of his own judgment to admit that any other artist knew more about his trade than he did himself. Moreover, he had, fortunately, the good sense to see that true individuality in art is a matter of temperament, and that however much a man may study recognised authorities in his profession he must, for good or ill, depend upon himself in the making of his career. Subservience to tradition and the acceptance of stock dogmas, without question and without analysis, were the very last things which would have been possible to an innovator so restless and at the same time so consistent.

It is very questionable whether the influence which Whistler in his turn exercised upon others has been on the whole beneficial. Like most other painters with startling methods and constantly asserted pretensions to infallibility, he gathered totally different personality, tries to paint exactly round him an array of followers who were quite like his leader, stamps himself plainly as inprepared to do just what he would not have done sincere and as unfit for the profession to which himself, and to imitate blindly all his tricks and mannerisms. A few of these followers, endowed with more than average strength of mind, have had the sense to disentangle themselves from the crowd of copyists and to work out independent artistic theories by the aid of his teaching, but there still remain many men who think that their only mission in the world is to ape his eccentricity and to travesty his independence. Of course, this is a ridiculous attitude; but, perhaps, those who take it up may be excused because, as is the case with all copyists, they are incapable of realising what a very poor figure they cut among people of intelligence. Such a master as Whistler cannot be imitated. His technical devices belonged to himself; they were the consequences of his habit of thought and even of his physical peculiarities, and he evolved them more or less unconsciously in obedience to the promptings of his own temperament. If another Whistler, identical in character and with the same strange mixture of qualities, could be created, he would quite possibly work sincerely in the same fashion, but such a re-incarnation is contrary to the principles of nature. The follower who, with a he has attached himself. He becomes a discreditable appendage of which the master has every reason to feel ashamed. Moreover, the limitations of Whistler's pictorial work make it bad to copy. We have every reason to be thankful that he lived and laboured as he did, for he has added a great figure to the array of world-famous painters. But at the most he has only shown us one side of art, and all his consummate skill has been expended within a narrow area If he was absolutely right all the other masters who are recorded in history — with the exception of Velasquez, perhaps — must be rejected as false guides and bunglers who deserve condemnation rather than respect. Even Velasquez, judged by the Whistlerian standard, was too diffuse and broke bounds frequently in an inexcusable manner. Xow that Whistler is dead it is, it must be frankly said, far better that what may be called his visible influence should die with him. Any effort to keep it alive by the aid of men who are blind enough to believe that his mantle has fallen upon them is necessarily predestined to failure.

Yet there is one lesson to be learned from study of his performances — a lesson which every painter who aspires to greatness would do well to master. He has proved beyond all question what vast possibilities there are in common things. The beauty of everyday life was one of his strongest convictions, and his faculty for finding suitable material for great pictures in any direction never failed him. He never had to wander far from home in search of subjects; he took what came and illuminated it by the light of his genius until the merest commonplaces were full of exquisite artistic suggestions. It was his rare decorative instinct that saved him from ever missing his mark, and led him always aright in his management of the resources of his craft. If the artists who seek to rival him will estimate justly the significance of this factor in his greatness he will assuredly not have laboured in vain.

References

Baldry, A. L. “James McNeill whistler, his art and influence.” The Studio 29 (1903): 237-45. Internet Archive. Web. 12 January 2012.


Victorian Web Homepage Visual Arts James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) Paintings by Whistler

Last modified 12 January 2012