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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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And he grouped together a number of Ruskin's
dogmatic utterances, where -in his enthusiasm for
certain men he condemned others who were infi-
nitely superior, — as, for instance, where he praises
without limitations the work of the forgotten Prout,
and says that Rembrandt's colors are wrong from
beginning to end, and that "Vulgarity, dulness,
or impiety will indeed always express themselves
through art in brown and gray, as in Rembrandt ;"
and again where he places Rubens above Titian and
Raphael, and compares an unknown Mulready with
Albert Durer, to the disadvantage of the latter.

These things it pleased Whistler to do, and he has
done them with rare piquancy in the " Gentle Art."

If what is contained therein savors in aught of
malice, let it be remembered that public, critics,

156



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

painters were snapping at his heels during the years
that he was doing the very work which pubhc, critics,
and painters now worship, and a lesser man would
have yielded to the storm of adverse opinion and
ridicule.

With the exception of a few friends and admirers,
he was absolutely without support during the period
when an artist most needs encouragement.

It is everlastingly to his credit that neither the
ridicule of others — " the voice of the nation" — nor
his own necessities, and they pressed heavily at
times, caused him to swerve a hair's breadth from
what he believed to be worth doing in art.

Nearly every great artist of whom we have any
record has at one time or another in his career
yielded to the temptation — frequently under press-
ure of dire necessity — to do something that would
sell. No such reproach can be laid at Whistler's
door.

The galled critics complained that he did not
treat them fairly, — that he selected small excerpts
from voluminous essays ; whereas, if he had re-
printed the essays entire, language apparently plain
would have been reversed in meaning. For instance,
he of the Times, who had written of Velasquez,
complained that the quotation gave " exactly the
opposite impression to that which the article, taken
as a whole, conveys." It must have been an extraor-
dinary article to transform what was quoted into
praise ; but Whistler, in reply, said :

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RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

"Why squabble over your little article? You did print
what I quote, you know, Tom ; and it is surely unimportant
what more you may have written of the Master. That you
should have written anything at all is your crime."

Ruskin never complained of anything Whistler
wrote. The one utterance which caused the suit
for libel was probably the first and last that passed
his lips. The eloquent old man never did pay
very much attention to what others thought of him ;
he was too busy with his own dreams and fancies.

He did write what Whistler quoted about Rem-
brandt, but the whole passage is a lament over the
lack of appreciation of color, and is as follows :

" For instance : our reprobation of bright color is, 1 think,

for the most part, mere affectation, and must soon be done

away with. Vulgarity, dulness, or impiety will indeed always

express themselves through art in brown and gray, as in

Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Salvator ; but we are not wholly

vulgar, dull, or impious, nor, as moderns, are we necessarily

obhged to continue so in any wise. Our greatest men,

whether sad or gay, still delight, like the great men of all

ages, in brilliant hues. The coloring of Scott and Byron is

full and pure ; that of Keats and Tennyson rich even to

excess. Our practical failures in coloring are merely the

necessary consequences of our prolonged want of practice

during the period of Renaissance affectation and ignorance ;

and the only durable difference between old and modern

coloring is the acceptance of certain hues by the modern,

which please him by expressing that melancholy peculiar to

his more reflective or sentimental character and the greater

variety of them necessary to express his greater science.



• « 1



1 Modern Painters, vol. iii., chap, xvii., paragraph i8.

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Again, on the subject of color, he says :

" We find the greatest artists mainly divided into two
groups, — those who paint principally with respect to local
color, headed by Paul Veronese, Titian, and Turner, and those
who paint principally with reference to light and shade irre-
spective of color, headed by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt,
and Raphael. The noblest members of each of these classes
introduce the element proper to the other class, in a subor-
dinate way. Paul Veronese introduces a subordinate light
and shade, and Leonardo introduces a subordinate local
color. The main difference is, that with Leonardo, Rem-
brandt, and Raphael vast masses of the picture are lost in
comparatively colorless (dark, gray, or brown) shadow, —
these painters beginning with the lights and going doivn to
blackness ; but with Veronese, Titian, and Turner the whole
picture is like the rose, — glowing with color in the shadows
and rising into paler and more delicate hues, or masses of
whiteness, in the lights, — they having begun with the shadows
and gone up to whiteness."

Ruskin said so much about art, and said it so dog-
matically, that no one utterance gives an adequate
conception of what he thought about any one man.
Furthermore, while his language is crystal itself, his
thoughts are often contradictory and confusing in
the extreme.

For instance, no man with any sense of color
whatsoever would group Leonardo, Rembrandt, and
Raphael together as men who painted "irrespective
of color," — for no great Italian from the days of
Giotto to those of Michael Angelo painted regardless
of color ; on the contrary, color is the one conspic-
uous, brilliant, and beautiful feature of their work,

159



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

and the color-sense, as it existed in those days in all
its exquisite refinement, is, generally speaking, abso-
lutely wanting in ours.

In all but color Rembrandt forgot more than most
of the Italians ever knew ; but in the use of color —
not imitatively, not after the manner of nature, but
decoratively and arbitrarily — the Italians forgot more
than Rembrandt ever knew ; and, so far as color is
concerned, there is absolutely nothing in common
between Rembrandt and Leonardo or Raphael,
while there is much in common between the two
latter.

It was not color, but light, that Ruskin appre-
ciated, as is shown by a hundred passages, but by
none more clearly than that quoted wherein he says
of the three painters last named, — and the italics are
his, — "these painters beginning with lights and
going down to blackness ; but with Veronese, Titian,
and Turner the whole picture is like the rose, —
glowing with color in the shadows and rising into
paler and more delicate hues, or masses of white-
ness, in the lights, — they having begun with the
shadows and gone up to whiteness."

When he held his exhibition in London, in 1892,
of "Nocturnes, Marines, and Chevalet Pieces," — a
"small collection kindly lent their owners," — he
once more printed in his dainty brown-paper-cov-
ered catalogue, beneath each picture, the early com-
ments of press, critics, and people, and called it all
"The Voice of a People."

160



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

And what a collection of bizarre opinions it is, to
be sure, from the serious Times to the lightsome
Merrie England, which said :

" He paints in soot colors and mud colors, but, far
from enjoying the primary hues, has little or no per-
ception of secondary or tertiary color."

Which goes to show that the budding science of
chromatics is not without effect on vocabularies.

Here we have the "kitchen stuff" criticism of
Turner in 1842 paraphrased word for word in the
mud and soot criticism of Whistler precisely fifty
years later.

Is the jargon of criticism at once limited and
exhausted ? Are we to linger forever about the
cook-stove in the depreciation of art ? With the in-
troduction of the steel range of mammoth propor-
tions can we not find new terms of opprobrium?
Besides, there are the gas and gasoline stoves of ex-
plosive habit, which ought to be suggestive of nov-
elty in vituperation. But, alas, the critic is prone
to repeat himself, and the language of the fathers is
visited upon the children unto the third and fourth
generations of them that hate.

And press, critics, and artists are convicted, once
more, of incompetency. But what does it matter,
save as a warning that will not be heeded ? Are we
any wiser in our generation ? Were Whistler to
appear to-day, as he did forty-odd years ago, would
he be received with the praise his works command
now ? Hardly.

" 161



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

Many of his followers were quite as absurd in
their misplaced admiration as the maligned public in
its denunciation, and no one knew it better than he.
He came upon two of them once as they were wax-
ing eloquent before a sketch that had somehow
escaped his studio, — possibly overlooked and left
behind in some of his movings. He listened a
moment to their raptures, fitted his monocle to his
eye, took a look at this "masterpiece," and said :

" God bless me, I wonder where that came from.
Not worth the canvas it's painted on."

And he turned away.

We who have been taught to see, not wholly but
in part, may laugh at our betters who, when he first
appeared, could see nothing at all ; but our virtue is
acquired.

His attitude towards critics is summed up in the
short but pointed article written in December, 1878,
shortly after the Ruskin suit, and called "Art and
Art Critics."

" Shall the painter, then (1 foresee the question), decide
upon painting ? Shall he be the critic and sole authority ?
Aggressive as is this supposition, I fear that, in the length of
time, his assertion alone has established what even the gen-
tlemen of the quill accept as the canons of art and recognize
as the masterpieces of work. ' '

All of which is undeniably true. The painter
must in the end judge of painting, and the sculptor
judge of sculpture. But there are two distinct sides

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

to a work of art, — to every work, for that matter :
there is the relation between the worker and his
work, and the relation between the completed work
and the public, — the work being the intermediary
between artist and people, his means of communi-
cation, his mode and manner of speech.

There is, therefore, the process of creation and
the process of appreciation, of utterance and of
understanding.

The painting of a picture is one thing, its appre-
ciation by the public is quite another.

A man need not be a dramatist to watch the
effect of a drama upon the audience ; a man need
not own a vineyard to know good wine.

The critic stands, or, rather, should stand, between
the public and the work he criticises, whether it be
poem, painting, statue, or drama ; the mistake he
commonly makes is in forcing himself between the
worker and his work, and in trying to teach him
something only another and better worker in the
same art is competent to do.

Critics make most of their blunders in judging
works according to preconceived notions as to how
they should be done, — in condemning, for instance,
a picture because not painted after prevailing modes
and methods, because it is a departure, whereas
with these considerations the lay-critic has nothing
to do ; they fall entirely within the province of the
painter-critic, the one man who is competent, in the
long run, to pass upon the methods employed.

Every work is an appeal to the public, — its com-

163



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

pletion and exhibition make it such ; therefore,
every work challenges the critical faculties, great or
small, of those who see it. It is inevitable that some
more interested should spring up to interpret, rightly
or wrongly, the work to the public ; the artist sel-
dom takes the trouble, — in fact, has neither the time
nor the temperament ; his message is complete in
the picture, others must understand it as best they
can.

The playwright cannot address the audience save
through the play, the poet speaks only through his
poetry, the painter through his pictures, the sculptor
through the forms of his creation. Seldom is an
artist gifted with more than one tongue, and that
tongue is his art. How, then, can artists interpret
the work of artists ? How can the painter, who is
dumb save with his brush, or the sculptor, who is
mute save with his clay and chisel, tell the world
anything about the work of others ?

It is the business of those who can speak and
write to tell the people, not how the work was created,
unless they were present, but how it impressed them
as a finished thing. That is the province of legitimate
criticism.

Every man who has done his best to understand,
though at the risk of betraying his ignorance, has
the right to say how he likes what he sees or hears
or tastes. The opinions of some are worth more
than those of others ; and these opinions, with the
reasons therefor, we are delighted to hear. That is
about all there is to sound criticism ; and in that sense

164



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

comment and those whose profession is to comment
are inevitable, — until the aesthetic millenium, when
critics cease from troubling and the artists are at rest.

Ruskin, unfortunately, attempted the double duty
of telling painters how to paint and the public what
to like. With all his industry and considerable
talent for drawing, he was not competent to tell
painters how to paint, — though much that he said is
accepted as sound, — and his judgments of the rela-
tive merits of painters and pictures were biassed by
his own convictions regarding the way the work
should be done.

His limitations were due to his strong preferences
and violent prejudices. His devotion to Turner — a
great painter — was one limitation ; lack of appre-
ciation of Rembrandt was another ; failure to esti-
mate Velasquez at his real worth was another ; and
a lot of enthusiasms for men who are now forgotten
are so many additional evidences of lack of judicial
temper in Ruskin. But all these things are as noth-
ings in comparison with the rich store of things said
in English so strong, so simple, and yet so beautiful
that it fairly intoxicates and rouses something akin
to a religious enthusiasm.

A word concerning the "Voice of a People," as
Whistler called his little collection of criticisms.
What is it ?

In literature the "Voice of a People" makes
itself heard at the bookseller's counter and over
the desk of the circulating library, — and that, too,

165



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

regardless of critics who praise this book and con-
demn that. Sometimes, before the Critic has spoken,
the "Voice" is heard, and the presses groan with the
burden of their task ; or, more often, after the Critic
has had his say, the "Voice," disregarding labored
precepts, calls loudly for what it is told it should not
have ; and so in literature the "Voice" makes itself
heard loud and clear and natural, and there is no
mistaking it.

Likewise in the drama the insistent "Voice" de-
mands trash or otherwise, quite regardless of the
protest of the Critic. The run of a play is not de-
termined by the criticisms. The opinion of the
Critic is often foreseen and defied ; but neither
writer, manager, nor actor can foretell the verdict
of the "Voice," — favorable often when least ex-
pected ; adverse often when least deserved.

But in art the "Voice" — stentorian in literature
and the drama — sinks to a whisper so diffident that
it cannot be heard amidst the trumpetings of the
Critics.

The Critics — those whose business it was to write
and talk about art — ridiculed Whistler, not the
"Voice." Left wholly to itself, it is quite likely the
"Voice" would have found much that it liked in the
beautiful combinations of tones and colors, for there
is nothing inherently repulsive in Whistler's work, as
in much other that Critics command the "Voice"
to praise ; on the contrary, his paintings are exceed-
ingly restful to the eye, and exceedingly attractive
as schemes of color if nothing else. The " Voice,"

1 66



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

left to itself, would say, " I do not understand them,
but I like them, — just as I like music, without know-
ing much about it."

But the "Voice" — independent enough in litera-
ture, the drama, and even in music — dares not lisp
in art until the Critic speaks. Then the "Voice"
praises what he praises, condemns what he con-
demns, until the secret purchases and growing de-
mand for the outcast confounds both Critic and
echoing "Voice." Then the "Voice" turns — as it
has in the case of Whistler — and rends the Critics,
unless those agile gentlemen change sides and praise
what they formerly condemned.

Too bad that Whistler attributed the "Voice" of
the Critic to that long-suffering animal — the Public,
which, if often wrong, is always honest, and, in all
but art — vociferous.

Concerning his habit of persistently impaling the
critics, a writer says : ^

" We wish that the catalogue did not, for the tenth time,
contain quotations from all the dull things which bewildered
criticism has said about him. Mr. Whistler is a wit, and
should recollect that the same old joke must not be told too
often to the same old audience."

But where is the joke? In the criticisms or in
their repetition ? If the criticisms were serious, then
repetition is doubly serious.



^ Saturday Review, March 26, 1892, p. 357.
167



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

Nor is it "the same old audience," but each year,
each hour, a new audience. Of all the English-
speaking people not one in a million have ever
heard the joke ; and if joke there be, it is surely
a gracious act to make it known.

The far-seeing publisher deftly detaches the favor-
able comment from uncongenial context and prints
it boldly on the fly-leaf of the volume. Why should
not author or painter print his page of deprecia-
tions that, as Whistler says, "history maybe cleanly
written" ? And if preserved and printed once, why
not for all time ?

The record of a people is not complete unless
their likes and dislikes be known. What would we
not give for the adverse criticisms of Shakespeare?
And there must have been many besides poor
Greene's, What would we not give for some of the
off-hand comments of his fellow-actors and his fel-
low-managers ?

The world conspires to deceive the world. The
literature of adulation is carefully conserved until
mortals, denuded of their frailties, become gods.

In the course of his career Whistler met with
many bizarre appreciations, but none more astonish-
ing than this : ^

"To understand Mr. Whistler you must understand his
body. I do not mean that Mr. Whistler has suffered from
bad health, — his health has always been excellent ; all great



1 Moore, Modern Painting, p. 6.
i68



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

artists have excellent health, but his constitution is more
nervous than robust. He is even a strong man, but he is
lacking in weight. Were he six inches taller and his bulk
proportionally increased, his art would be different."

The classification of the prize-ring into feather-,
light-, middle-, and heavy-weights makes its appear-
ance in art ; genius, like jockeys, must weigh-in and
-out. By rights, therefore, Paganini should have
played the bass-viol and Napoleon should have been
a drummer-boy. The painter must measure his
canvas by his belt, and bant the masterpiece into
shape. The gymnasium is the true school of art,
and the dumb-bell is mightier than the brush.

' ' For if WTiistler had been six inches taller and his bulk
proportionally increased, . , . instead of having painted a
dozen portraits, — every one, even the ' Mother' and ' Miss
Alexander,' which I personally take to be the two best,
a little febrile in its extreme beauty, whilst some, master-
pieces though they be, are clearly touched with weakness
and marked with hysteria, — Mr. Whistler would have painted
a hundred portraits as strong, as vigorous, as decisive, and
as easily accomplished as any by Velasquez or Hals."

This is the sort of comment that follows but
never precedes acquaintance. After knowing a
painter, it is easy to discover all his physical charac-
teristics and idiosyncrasies in his work, — so easy, in
fact, that many critics prefer to pass on books, plays,
and pictures on their merits without knowing any-
thing about the authors, the actors, or painters ; for
in the end a work must stand or fall by itself.

169



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

From an examination of the "Hermes," can this
critic give us the stature of Praxiteles? From the
"Nike" in the Louvre can he describe the unknown
master? What does the "Sistine Madonna" tell
him of the weight of Raphael, or the " Lesson in
Anatomy" of the "bulk" of Rembrandt?

A man's physical condition may be — frequently
is — reflected in his work. If he is an invalid, what
he does is apt to show it, — though Herbert Spencer
is a case to the contrary ; but his physique is another
matter. Genius is not a matter of inches. The
weight of the brain is not controlled by the size of
the body; still more independent is the organization
and development of the brain.

If a man have strength and health — and these the
critic concedes to Whistler — his work may be the
work of a giant

One of the greatest and strongest of Germany's
living artists is almost a dwarf ; the most virile painter
in America to-day is short and slight.

The same critic, referring to the letters in the
"Gentle Art," says, "If Mr. Whistler had the bull-
like health of Michael Angelo, Rubens, Hals, the
letters would never have been written." But, as a
matter of fact, Angelo was "a man of more than
usually nervous temperament." As any one at all
familiar with his career, his many controversies, his
voluminous letters, well knows, "his temperament
exposed him to sudden outbursts of scorn and anger

170



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

which brought him now and then into violent col-
lision with his neighbors." His habit of ridiculing
and annoying his fellow-pupils invited the blow from
Pietro Torrigiano which gave him his broken nose.
He was a weakly child and suffered two illnesses in
manhood, but by carefully refraining from all ex-
cesses he regained and preserved his health. " His
countenance always showed a good and wholesome
color. Of stature he is as follows : height middling,
broad in the shoulders ; the rest of the body some-
what slender in proportion."

The foregoing scarcely bears out the sweeping
generalization that "the greatest painters, I mean
the very greatest, — Michael Angelo, Velasquez, and
Rubens, — were gifted by nature with as full a meas-
ure of health as of genius. Their physical consti-
tutions resembled more those of bulls than of
men."

As for Velasquez, who can speak authoritatively
for him ?

While the physical characteristics of geniuses are
habitually exaggerated, and the weak, the nervous,
the delicate are made well and strong and "like
bulls" in the enthusiasm of appreciation or the exi-
gencies of theory, it would not be difficult to point
out in history, art, and literature innumerable in-
stances of men whose achievements afford no indi-
cations whatsoever of their bodily make up, — in
fact, it is common experience that neither poet nor
painter ever corresponds with preconceived notions,

171



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

and to meet the one or the other is to court disen-
chantment.

If Whistler had been six inches taller he would
not have been Angelo, or Rembrandt, or Velasquez,
but — in all probability — a soldier.



172



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler



VII



Supreme as a Colorist — Color and Music — His
Susceptibility to Color — Ruskin and Color — Art

and Nature.

Supreme as a colorist, Whistler achieved fame as
an etcher long before the world acknowledged his
greatness as a painter. Even now it is the fashion
to exalt his etchings to the depreciation of his paint-
ings, — to say that he was a great artist in the one
medium but unsuccessful in the other.

The following is a fair illustration of this sort of
comment :

"Cool-headed conservatism should clarify the halo which
encircles Whistler's portraits. The periodic 'symphonies,'
'harmonies,' and 'arrangements,' in gray and green, green


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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 10 of 18)