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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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JAMES A. McNeill whistler



James A. McNeill Whistler



AUTHOR OF "delight: THE

in J




Copyright, 1903
By J. B. LippiNcoTT Company

Published November, 190}

Ehctrotypcd and Printed by
y. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, U. S. A.

To L. O. E.

This Sixteenth Day of September
Nineteen Hundred and Three


Most of what is contained herein has been col-
lected from time to time within the past ten years
and jotted down for use in certain lectures on
Whistler and his art. The lectures were, as is this
book, a tribute to the great painter.

The reminiscences are mostly personal. Many of
the anecdotes — though perhaps equally familiar to
others — were had from the artist's own lips. The
views concerning his art, whether right or ^yrong,
were formed while watching him at work day after
day, and after many interviews in which, now and
then, he would speak plainly concerning art. At
the same time not so much as a thought must be
attributed to him unless expressly quoted.

The biographical data — just sufficient to furnish a
connecting thread and aid in the appreciation — have
been gathered from casual sources, and are, no
doubt, subject to incidental corrections.

Only when a duly authorized "life and letters" is
published by those who have access to the material
that must exist will the great artist be known by the
world as he really was — a profoundly earnest, serious,
loving, and lovable man.

Meanwhile, those who believe in his art must —
like the writer — speak their convictions for what
they are worth.





Why he never Returned to America — Tariff on Art —

South America — Valparaiso 15


A Family of Soldiers — Grandfather founded Chicago —
Birth — St. Petersburg — West Point — Coast Survey
— His Military Spirit 25


An American — The Puritan Element — Attitude of Eng-
land and France — Racial and Universal Qualities
in Art — Art-Loving Nations 47


Early Days in Paris and Venice — Etchings, Lithographs,
and Water-Colors — "Propositions" and "Ten
o'clock" 79


Chelsea — The Royal Academy — ' ' Portrait of His
Mother* ' — " Carlyle' ' — Grosvenor Gallery — The
" Peacock Room" — Concerning Exhibitions . . . 109

The Ruskin Suit — His Attitude towards the World and
towards Art — "The Gentle Art of Making Ene-
mies" — Critics and Criticism 140





Supreme as a Colorist — Color and Music — His Suscepti-

bilty to Color — Ruskin and Color — Art and Nature 1 73


The Royal Society of British Artists — In Paris once

more — At Home and at Work 217


Portrait-Painting — How he Differed from his Great
Predecessors — The "Likeness" — Composition of
Color — No Commercial Side — Baronet vs. Butterfly 244


The School of Carmen — In Search of Health — Chelsea

once more — The End 277

Index 289




Whistler ...... Frontispiece.

From a sketch by Rajon

Crepuscule in Flesh Color and Green ; Valpa-
raiso ......... 22

Harmony in Gray and Green. Portrait of Miss
Alexander ........ 50

The Lange Leizen — of the Six Marks — Purple
AND Rose 58

Plate made while in the employ of the Govern-
ment AT Washington, 1854-55 . . . .88

Arrangement in Gray and Black. Portrait of
the Painter's Mother . . . . .114

Arrangement in Black. La Dame au Brode-
QuiNE Jaune. . . . . . . .120

Arrangement in Gray and Black. Portrait of
Thomas Carlyle . . . . . .122

Nocturne, Black and Gold. The Falling
Rocket 140

Blue and Silver; Blue Wave, Biarritz . .174

Little Rose, Lyme Regis ..... 274

Symphony in White, No. IL The Little White

Girl 282


" This man, who took no joy in the ways of his brethren
— who cared not for conquest, and fretted in the field — tJiis
designer of quaint patterns — this deviser of the beautiful —
who perceived in Nature about him curious curvings, as
faces are seen in the fire — this dreamer apart, was the first
artist:' — Whistler's "Ten o'Clock."



JAMES A. McNeill whistler



Why he never Returned to America — Tariff on
Art — South America — Valparaiso.

Now that the end has come and the master is no
more, the scattered sheaves of stories and anecdotes,
of facts and fancies, of recollections and impressions
may be gathered together from the four quarters,
and the story of his work be told, — not in detail,
not in sequence, for some one will write his life,
but in fragmentary fashion as the thoughts occur.

For the better part of his life Whistler fought the
prejudices of all Europe and of his own country.

He once said, with a tinge of bitterness in his
tone :

"The papers in America seem content to publish
second-hand whatever they find about me in English
journals that is mean and vindictive or that savors
of ridicule. Aside from the hopeless want of origi-
nality displayed in echoing the stupidities of others,
what has become of that boasted love of fair play?



Even the phlegmatic Englishman takes the part of a
fellow-countryman against many — quite regardless ;
but the American press — bully like — leans to the
side of the bully and weakly cries, bravo ! whenever
the snarling pack on this side snaps at the heels of
an American who mocks them at the doors of their
own kennels.

" One would think the American people would
back a countryman — right or wrong — who is
fighting against odds ; but for thirty years they
laughed when the English laughed, sneered when
they sneered, scoffed when they scoffed, lied when
they lied, until, — well, until it has been necessary to
reduce both nations to submission."

For a time he worked without a word, then :

"But when France — in all things discerning —
proclaimed the truth, America — still blind — hastened
to shout that she, too, saw the light, and poured
forth adulation ad natiseavi.'"

" But would you say that Americans are as dense
as the English?"

" Heaven forbid that the Englishman's one un-
deniable superiority be challenged ; but an English-
man is so honest in his stupidity that one loves him
for the — virtue ; whereas the American is a ' smart
Aleck' in his ignorance, and therefore intolerable."

But that was years ago, when the unconverted
were more numerous on this side, — there are still a
number of stubborn dissenters, but in the chorus
of praise their voices are scarce more than a few
discordant notes,


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Of late Whistler had but little cause to complain
of lack of appreciation on this side, — for, while an art
so subtle as his is bound to be more or less misun-
derstood, critics, amateurs, and a goodly portion of
the public have for a long time acknowledged his
greatness as an etcher, a lithographer, and a painter.
In fact, for at least ten years past his works have
been gradually coming to this country — where they
belong. England and Scotland have been searched
for prints and paintings until the great collections —
much greater than the public know — of his works
are here. Some day the American people will be
made more fully acquainted with the beautiful things
he has done, many of which have never been seen
save by a few intimate friends.

The struggle for recognition was long and bitter,
— so long and so bitter that it developed in him the
habits of controversy and whimsical irritability by
which he was for a generation more widely known
than through his art.

When it was once reported that he was going to
America, he said, " It has been suggested many
times ; but, you see, I find art so absolutely irritating
to the people that, really, I hesitate before exas-
perating another nation."

To another who asked him when he was coming,
he answered, with emphasis, "When the duty on art
is removed."

The duty on art was a source of constant irrita-
tion to Whistler, — for, while the works of American



artists residing abroad are admitted free, the artist
is compelled to make oaths, invoices, and take out
consular certificates, and pay the consular fees in line
with the shipper of olive oil and cheese.

There was even a time, under the present law,
when the works of American painters were not ad-
mitted free. The law reads, the works of American
artists "residing temporarily abroad" shall be ad-
mitted free, etc.

Some department at Washington made an off-
hand ruling that if an American artist had resided
more than five years abroad his works would be
subject to duty as those of a foreigner, thereby
expatriating with a stroke of the pen four-fifths of
the Americans who are working like dogs — but as
artists — to make the world beautiful.

To Whistler, Sargent, and the many prosperous
ones the ruling did not greatly matter, but to the
younger men who could not earn money enough to
get home it did matter, and for a time it looked as
if American art in Europe would be obliterated, — for
American art in Europe depends for its support and
aggressiveness on the American artists over there.
Drive these men home, or expatriate them, so as to
compel them to cast their lots with France, or Eng-
land, or Italy, and what would become of those
American sections in foreign exhibitions which for
at least a dozen years past have commanded the
serious consideration of all thoughtful observers as
containing elements of strength, sobriety, and prom-
ise found nowhere else in the entire world of art?


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Happily an appeal to the Secretary of the Treas-
ury — a man interested in art — resulted in an imme-
diate reversal of the ruling, and the works of
American artists come in free unless the artist de-
clares his intention of residing abroad permanently.

But while the ban on American painting is lifted,
sculpture is in a bad way. Under the law only
sculpture "wrought by hand" from marble or
metal by the sculptor is to be classed as art. Inas-
much as the sculptor never did work bronze by hand,
and nowadays very rarely touches the marble,
there is no sculpture which comes within the law.
The federal courts of New York, high and low,
have soberly held that unless it is shown that bronzes
are "wrought by hand" by the sculptor, instead of
cast from plaster, which in turn is made from the
clay, they are commercial products and classed with
bronze cooking utensils at forty-five per cent. duty.
However, a federal judge in Chicago, somewhat
more familiar with art processes, has held that the
New York decisions are arrant nonsense, and orig-
inal bronzes by Rodin, St. Gaudens, and other
sculptors, made in the only known way of producing
bronzes, should be classed as art. What other
federal courts may hold — each, under our wonderful
system, having the right to its opinion until the
Supreme Court is called upon to finally end the dif-
ferences — Heaven alone knows ; but for the present
it behooves lovers of art to bring in their original
bronzes and marbles by way of Chicago.

These were some of the things Whistler — in



common with many an ordinary man — could not

A few years ago an effort was made to have an
exhibition of his pictures in Boston. He was ap-
pealed to, but refused :

" God bless me, why should you hold an exhi-
bition of pictures in America? The people do not
care for art."

" How do you know? You have not been there
for many years."

" How do I know ! Why, haven't you a law to
keep out pictures and statues ? Is it not in black
and white that the works of the great masters must
not enter America, that they are not wanted "

''But "

" There are no ' buts' about it except the fool
who butts his head against the barrier you have
erected. A people that tolerates such a law has no
love for art, — their protestation is mere pretence."

That a great nation should deliberately discourage
the importation of beautiful things, should wallow
in the mire of ugliness and refuse to be cleansed by
art, was to him a mystery, — for what difference does
it make whether painting, poetry, and music come
out of the East or out of the West, so long as they
add to the happiness of a people ? And why should
painting and sculpture find the gate closed when
poetry and music are admitted ?

He did not know the petty commercial consider-
ations which control certain of the painters and


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

sculptors and some of the institutions supposed to
be devoted to art.

For is not art the most "infant" of all the " infant
industries" of this great commercial nation? And
should not the brush-worker at home be given his
meed of protection against the pauper brush-workers
of Europe — even against Rembrandt and Velasquez
and all the glorious Italians ?

Beethoven and Mendelssohn and Mozart, Shake-
speare and Milton, — their works, even their original
manuscripts, if in existence, though costly beyond
many paintings, come in without let or hinderance ;
but the work of the painter, the original manuscript
of the poet in line, of the composer of harmonies
in color, may not cross the border without tribute.

A symphony in sound is welcomed ; a symphony
in color is rejected. Why this discrimination in
favor of the ear and against the eye ?

There is no reason, but an inordinate amount of
selfishness, in it all. The wire-pulling painter at
home, backed up by the commercially-managed art
institution, makes himself felt in the chambers at
Washington where tariffs are arranged, and paint-
ing and sculpture are removed from the free list and
placed among the pots and kettles of commerce.

Where is the poet and where is the musician in
this distribution of advantages ? Why should Ameri-
can poetry and American music be left to compete
with the whole world while American painting and
American sculpture are suitably encouraged by a
tariff of twenty per cent. ? — a figure fixed, no doubt,



as is the plea, to make good the difference in wages,
— pauper labor of Europe, — pauper artists. Alas !
too true ; shut the vagabonds out that their aristo-
cratic American confreres residing at home may-
maintain their "standard of living."

Of all the peoples on the face of the globe, high
and low, civilized and savage, there is just one that
discourages the importation of the beautiful, and that
one happens to be the youngest and the richest of
all — the one most in need of what it wilfully ex-

Notwithstanding all these reasons for not coming,
he had a great desire to visit this country, and in
letters to friends on this side he would again and
again express his firm intention to come the follow-
ing summer or winter, as the season might be. The
death of Mrs. Whistler, some six years ago, and his
own ill health prevented, — but there was no lack of

Strangely enough, he did take a sailing-ship for
South America, away back in the sixties, and while
there painted the " Crepuscule in Flesh Color and
Green; Valparaiso" and the "Nocturne Blue and
Gold ; Valparaiso."

Speaking of the voyage, he said :

"I went out in a slow sailing-ship, the only passenger.
During the voyage I made quite a number of sketches and
painted one or two sea-views, — pretty good things I thought
at the time. Arriving in port, I gave them to the purser to






:s A^■

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dfsire to vis

aeri • men-ds on this sid'

^ his firm intenti

ind tn


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

take back to England for me. On my return, some time later,
I did not find the package, and made inquiries for the purser.
He had changed ships and disappeared entirely. Many years
passed, when one day a friend, visiting my studio, said :

" ' By the way, I saw some marines by you in the oddest
place you can imagine.'

" 'Where?' I asked, amazed.

" ' I happened in the room of an old fellow who had once
been a purser on a South American ship, and while talking
with him saw tacked up on the wall several sketches which
I recognized as yours. I looked at them closely, and asked
the fellow where he got them.

" ' " Oh, these things," he said ; " why, a chap who went
out with us once painted them on board, off-hand like, and
gave them to me. Don't amount to much, do they ?"

" ' "Why, man, they are by Whistler."

" • " Whistler, ' ' he said, blankly. ' • Who' s Whistler ?' '

" ' "Why, Whistler the artist, — the great painter."

" ' "Whistler, Whistler. I beheve that was his name. But
that chap warn't no painter. He was just a swell who went
out with the captain ; he thought he could paint some, and
gave me those things when we got to Valparaiso. No, I
don't care to let them go, — for, somehow or other, they look
more like the sea than real pictures."

Whistler made several attempts to find these
sketches, but without success.

As illustrating his facility of execution when time
pressed, he painted the " Crepuscule in Flesh Color
and Green," which is a large canvas and one of his
best things, at a single sitting, having prepared his
colors in advance of the chosen hour.

He could paint with the greatest rapidity when
out-of-doors and it was important to catch certain
effects of light and color.



In 1894 he exhibited in Paris three small marines
which were marvels of clearness, force, and pre-
cision ; he had painted them in a few hours while in
a small boat, which the boatman steadied against the
waves as best he could. He placed the canvas
against the seat in front of him and worked away-
direct from nature.



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler


A Family of Soldiers — Grandfather founded Chi-
cago — Birth — St. Petersburg — West Point —
Coast Survey — His Military Spirit.

He came of a race of fighters. The family is
found towards the end of the fifteenth century in
Oxfordshire, at Goring and Whitechurch on the
Thames ; one branch was connected with the Web-
sters of Battle-Abbey, and descendants still live in
the vicinity ; another branch is in Essex, and from
this sprang Dr. Daniel Whistler, President of the
College of Physicians in London in the time of
Charles the Second, and described as " a quaint
gentleman of rare humor," and frequently men-
tioned in " Pepys's Diary."

From the Oxfordshire branch, one Ralph, a son
of Hugh Whistler of Goring, went to Ireland and
founded the Irish branch from which sprang Major
John Whistler, the first representative of the family
in America, and grandfather of the painter.

Major Whistler was a British soldier under Bur-
goyne, and was taken prisoner at the battle of
Saratoga. At the close of the war he returned to
England and made a runaway match with the
daughter of a Sir Edward Bishop.



Returning to this country with his wife, he settled
at Hagerstown, Maryland, and soon after enlisted in
the American army.

" He was made a sergeant-major in a regiment
that was called 'the infantry regiment' Afterwards
he was adjutant of Garther's regiment of the levies
of 1 79 1, which brought him into General St. Clair's
command. He was severely wounded November
4, 1 79 1, in a battle with the Indians on the Miami
River. In 1792 'the regiment of infantry' was, by
Act of Congress, designated as the ' First Regiment,'
and to this John Whistler was assigned as first lieu-
tenant In November, 1796, he was promoted to
the adjutancy, and in July, 1797, he was commis-
sioned a captain."

While captain of the "First Regiment," then
stationed at Detroit, he was, in 1803, ordered to
proceed to the present site of the city of Chicago
and construct Fort Dearborn.

He and his command arrived on August 17, at
two o'clock in the afternoon, and at once staked out
the ground and began the erection of palisades for
protection against the Indians.

The captain had with him at the time one son,
William, who was a lieutenant in the army, and who
was commander of Fort Dearborn in 1833, when
the fort was finally abandoned as a military post
Another son, John, remained in the East

On the completion of the fort the captain brought
out the remaining members of his family, — his wife,
five daughters, and his third son, George, then but


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

three years old, and afterwards the father of the

"The daughters were Sarah, who married James
Abbott, of Detroit, — the ceremony took place in the
fort, shortly after the family came ; the wedding-trip
was made to Detroit on horseback, over an Indian
trail and the old territorial road ; they had two
nights of camping out ; their effects were carried on
pack-horses, — Ann, married Major Marsh, of the
army ; Catherine, married Major Hamilton, of the
army ; Harriet, married Captain Phelan, also of the
army ; Caroline — eight months old when her father
built Fort Dearborn — was married in Detroit, in
1840, to William R. Wood, of Sandwich, Georgia."

When the army was reduced in June, 181 5,
Major Whistler was retired, and in 18 18 appointed
military storekeeper at Jefferson Barracks, St, Louis.
He died at Bellefontaine, Missouri, in 1827. "He
was a brave officer and became the progenitor of a
line of brave and efficient soldiers."

To a visitor from Chicago the artist once said :

"Chicago, dear me, what a wonderful place! I
really ought to visit it some day, — for, you know,
my grandfather founded the city and my uncle was
the last commander of Fort Dearborn."

George Washington Whistler, the father of the
painter, became an engineer of great reputation,
rose to the rank of major, and in 1842 accepted the
invitation of Czar Nicholas to superintend the con-
struction of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Railroad,



and it is said that, with the exception of John Quincy
Adams, no American in Russia was held in such
high estimation.

Major Whistler has been described as a very
handsome man ; he had rather long curling hair
which framed a most agreeable face. " He might
have been taken for an artist, rather than for a
military engineer. Yet he was, in every sense, a
manly man, with most attractive expression and

Whistler's mother — his father's second wife — was
Anna Mathilda McNeill, a daughter of Dr. C. D.
McNeill, of Wilmington, North Carolina.

So much for the stock from which Whistler sprang,
a line of able men and good fighters. In a round-
about way he must have inherited some of the traits
of that "quaint gentleman of rare humor" so fre-
quently mentioned by garrulous Samuel Pepys, who
says in one place, " Dr. Whistler told a pretty story.
. . . Their discourse was very fine ; and if I should
be put out of my office, I do take great content in
the liberty I shall be at of frequenting these gentle-
men's company."

It is reported that Whistler once stated he was
born in St. Petersburg, and he certainly seemed to
take delight in mystifying people as to the date and
place of his birth, — part of his habitual indifference
to the sober requirements of those solemn meta-
physical entities Time and Space.

One friend has insisted in print upon Baltimore


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

as his birthplace, another upon Stonington, Con-

His model once asked him :

"Where were you born?"

" I never was born, my child ; I came from on

Quite unabashed, the model retorted :

" Now, that shows how easily we deceive our-
selves in this world, for I should say you came from
below. ' '

The Salon catalogue of 1882 referred to him as
" McNeill Whistler, born in the United States."

His aversion to discussing dates, the lapse of years,
the time it would take to paint a portrait, or do any-
thing else, amounted to a superstition.

For him time did not exist. He did not carry a
watch, and no obtrusive clock was to be seen or
heard anywhere about him. He did not believe in
mechanical devices for nagging and prompting much-
goaded humanity. If he were invited to dinner, it
was always the better part of wisdom to order the
dinner at least a half-hour later than the moment
named in the invitation.

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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 1 of 18)