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  • Words by Mr Colin McDowell

Mr James McNeill Whistler could never be called a quiet American. Even today when there are thousands of Americans living in London he would stand out. In the last years of the 19th century he was as well known in London's social circles as Mr Beau Brummel had been 100 years earlier - at least in Mayfair. And like the legendary dandy, Mr Whistler was a dude, a wit and a poseur. He was also one of the most controversial men of his time.

Born in Massachusetts in 1834, Mr Whistler had itchy feet and was ready to take on the world from an early age. He loved Europe and even spent a year in St Petersburg as a young man. He studied at West Point, America's top army training college, where he was eventually sacked because even in his youth he was a contrarian. Always ready to argue with anyone over anything - a propensity that was to frequently get him into trouble throughout his life - he made no attempt to fit in or go with the crowd. But for those who found him insufferable there were many more who found his company delightful and his challenging attitudes endlessly stimulating.

"Whistler in his studio" by Mr James McNeill Whistler, 1865-66. Photo The Art Institute of Chicago/The Bridgeman Art Library

Mr Whistler was a social entertainer, always sharply critical and ready with a witty comment or repost. He was once entertaining a group of London's finer intellectuals and creative minds and after an especially witty comment, the poet Mr Oscar Wilde, who was a friend and one of the group, said, "I wish I had said that, James". The reply came as quick as a flash: "You will, Oscar, you will." It is little wonder that when it came to his paintings, Mr Whistler signed them with a butterfly - with a long stinger tail. It showed that, like so many apparently flippant people, he knew exactly what he was made of - gentle, even fragile delicacy but with a sharp sting in the tail for those who crossed him or stood in the way of his boundless ambition. But, while he may have had many of the characteristics of a street-fighting bruiser, his paintings were as understated as any great painters.

Mr Whistler was a great painter, and is recognised as such, although fashion has changed and he is now no longer at the forefront. At the time of his best work - all done in London in the last half of the 19th century - his strange approach to naming them brought him criticism for being pretentious. He called them by musical names, such as nocturnes or harmonies. Probably most famous of all his work was the portrait of his mother, which he called "Arrangement in Grey and Black". It became one of the most famous paintings of the time and was bought by the Musée D'Orsay in Paris, where it still holds pride of place.

"Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1", portrait of the artist's mother by Mr James McNeill Whistler, 1871. Musée d'Orsay, Paris/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library

A man with such a subtle and single-minded attitude could be expected to have an original approach to his appearance, and Mr Whistler certainly did. There was nothing about him that was not contrived. Everything was for effect. By no means conventionally handsome, and slight of figure, he had a dominating presence nevertheless. It was all about swagger and style. From his ringlets, usually half hidden under the sort of floppy velvet cap that was worn by Rembrant, to his long silver-topped cane without which he was rarely seen, this little man somehow contrived to have a large presence. His monocle glinting with malice, his dandy clothes - almost always black and tight cut to show off his slight figure - and his curling waxed moustache made him stand out from the crowd. People noticed him even before he opened his mouth and let the bons mots and outrageous comments flow.

And it was this that got him into trouble. Nothing if not arrogant, he was incensed when Mr John Ruskin, the man considered the greatest art critic in Victorian England, wrote in a review of one of Mr Whistler's "Nocturne" paintings, "I have seen and heard much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas [an enormous amount at that time] for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." It was a red rag to a bull for Mr Whistler, who responded immediately by suing Mr Ruskin for libel. The trial was a society occasion with crowds waiting for entrance to the court. After all, a public scrap between a major art critic and one of society's sharpest wits could not fail to be entertaining. And it was. Choosing his words carefully to convey the greatest contempt for the painting in question, Mr Ruskin's lawyer asked Mr Whistler, "How long did it take you to knock it off?" When Mr Whistler replied that it had taken two days, the lawyer said, "The labour of two days? Is that for which you ask 200 guineas?" Mr Whistler rose to the occasion. "No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime." The public gallery stood up and cheered him. He won the day. But this time the sting in the tail was aimed at him. While he won his case, the libel damages, rather than the thousands Mr Whistler expected, were in fact exactly one farthing. His exuberance never quite recovered from the blow to his self-esteem and his standing in public opinion.

Main image photo credits: left: "James Abbott McNeill Whistler" by William Merritt Chase, 1885. Credit: Photo 2013 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence; Above, centre: Mr James McNeill Whistler in his Fulham Road studio. 1884. Credit: Photo 2013 WGBH Stock Sales/Scala, Florence

The Mr Whistler Look


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