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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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and rose, purple and gold, or brown and black, have, or
had, novelty to recommend them, — more novelty, however,
than psychology. Apart from one or two, they are little
beyond essays in subdued Japonisme with subtle dashes of
Velasquez. The portrait of his mother alone shows adequate
depth, for the overlauded Carlyle is merely a male replica of
the single canvas wherein the artist seemed to lose — and to
find — himself. It is not in portraiture, but in etching and
lithography, that Whistler has disclosed the validity of his

! The Critic, vol. xxxviii. p. '32, January, 1 901.



To which may be added the following comments
since his death from leading American papers :

' ' Whistler in earlier life was a real etcher, easily the first
of the nineteenth century. The number of his plates of the
best quality is comparatively small. He soon lost his power
or the incentive to execute it. His hand degenerated, his
work became trivial and insincere. As a painter none of his
pictures will ever explain to posterity the reputation, or the
apparent reputation, that he enjoyed during his lifetime."

' ' It is, however, as an etcher rather than as a painter that
Whistler will be remembered."

"Thus, setting aside the portraits of his mother, of
Thomas Carlyle, Lady Campbell, and Miss Alexander,
and the startling 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver,' and the
• Arrangement in Black, ' it might be possible to count upon
the fingers of one hand the finest examples of his brush."

Many others of similar import might be gathered,
but the foregoing suffice. In reading them it should
not be forgotten that the etchings, which are now
praised without reserve, passed through the same
stages of depreciation through which the paintings
are passing ; so that, guided by the parallel, it is
reasonable to expect the complete acceptance of the
latter as masterpieces in the near future.

Broadly speaking, the order of acceptance has
been :

First. Etchings and lithographs.

Second, Portraits.

Third. Color harmonies, — such as many of his
figure-pieces, marines, nocturnes, and pure color
compositions generally, none of which is fully
accepted, some of which are scarcely known, and


iri^ comments

real ^tchT, easily the first

plates of the


e Stan -2;

nent ir^ night be possible to count upon>

the fingers of one hanu the hnest examples of his brush." f.

Many others of simihr import mtffhtbe gathered, g

h m it should^


l^irsL jLt.


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

all of which are misunderstood, in spite of his many
explicit words of explanation.

Such has been the order of general acceptance
of his work ; but the order of real merit is almost
precisely reversed.

Whistler stands supreme, —

First as a colorist.

Secondly as a painter of portraits.

Thirdly as an etcher and lithographer.

As an etcher comparisons are drawn between him
and Rembrandt.

As a painter of portraits comparisons are drawn
between him and Velasquez.

As a colorist he is beyond comparison save with
the masters of the far East.

In etching and lithography and the painting of
portraits he, at most, simply did as well or better
what others have done before ; but in the composi-
tion of harmonies of color to please the eye, as
harmonies of sound please the ear, he accomplished
results which are unique.

What he did with the needle is not so wholly and
absolutely unlike all that had been done before as
to render comparisons impossible ; whereas with the
brush in his domain of color Whistler stands alone.
His art was his own ; he painted like no other man
dead or living.

His etchings were so fine, so subtle, that the world
had difficulty in comprehending them ; but it did
learn to like them, and that, too, at a comparatively
early date. But even now his pictures are fully



understood by no one ; and yet they have had a pro- '
founder influence upon the art of to-day than those j
of any other master. )

He opened the door of the East to the painters \
of the West and showed them how they might paint
after the manner of the best there is in the Oriental
world, and not only retain, but accentuate their own !

The secret of Whistler's art, as of all great art, is
that it was the absolutely true and unaffected expres-
sion of his convictions and of his impressions of the
life and world about him ; and his impressions and
convictions in the domain of color, like those of
Beethoven in the world of sound, were worth re-

He is to color what Beethoven is to sound, and
his distinguishing merit is that of all the men of his
century or of many preceding centuries he was the
only one to treat color as a composer of music treats
sound, — as material for the arrangement of harmonies
to please the eye as music pleases the ear.

When Burne-Jones, in the Ruskin suit, was asked
if he saw any art quality in "The Falling Rocket,"
he apologetically said, " I must speak the truth, you
know," and then testified : " It has fine color and
atmosphere," but of detail and composition "abso-
lutely none."

As if the shower of fire of a falling rocket against
the blackness of night could have sharp detail and
composition ; as if anything were possible beyond


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

"fine color and atmosphere ;" and color and atmos-
phere are all Whistler intended. " My whole
scheme," he himself testified, " was only to bring
about a certain harmony of color," and, according
to the only decently qualified witness for the other
side, he succeeded.

Even Frith, the painter of "Derby Day" and the
"Rake's Progress," said, "There is a pretty color
which pleases the eye, but there is nothing more."

Why should there be anything more, if to please
the eye were the painter's sole intention ? Is it not
as legitimate to please the eye with compositions of
color, otherwise meaningless, as it is to please the
ear with compositions of sound ?

Profoundly speaking, color has no other object
than to please the eye. The story should be told, the
moral pointed, in black and white. The use of color
imitatively, or to accentuate the characterization, is
as base as the use of sound imitatively.

Color is to the eye precisely what sound is to the
ear, and the highest use to which either can be put
is the production of pure, not to say abstract, har-
monies for the satisfaction of its respective sense.

As long ago as 1868 Swinburne, in a pamphlet on
the Royal Academy exhibition of that year, said :

"No task is harder than this translation from color into
speech, when the speech must be so hoarse and feeble, when
the color is so subtle and sublime. Music and verse might
strike some string accordant in sound to such painting, but a
version such as this is a psalm of Tate's to a psalm of



David's. In all of the main strings touched are certain
varying chords of blue and white, not without interludes of
the bright and tender tones of floral purple or red. They
all have immediate beauty, they all give the delight of
natural things ; they seem to have grown as a flower grows,
not in any forcing house of ingenious and laborious cunning.
This is, in my eyes, a special quality of Mr. Whistler's
genius ; a freshness and fulness of the loveliest life of
things, with a high, clear power upon them which seems to
educe a picture as the sun does a blossom or a fruit."

In language too plain for the slightest misunder-
standing he has himself told the world precisely
what he meant his pictures to be, but the world will
not take him at his word.

Nearly thirty years ago, when the people wondered
at his calling his works "symphonies," "arrange-
ments," "harmonies," and "nocturnes," he wrote :

"The vast majority of English folk cannot and will not
consider a picture apart from any story which it may be
supposed to tell.

"My picture of a 'Harmony in Gray and Gold' is an
illustration of my meaning, — a snow-scene with a single
black figure and a lighted tavern. I care nothing for the
past, present, or future of the black figure, placed there be-
cause the black was wanted at that spot. All that I know is
that my combination of gray and gold is the basis of the
picture. Now, this is precisely what my friends cannot

• ' They say, ' Why not call it ' ' Trotty Veck, ' ' and sell it for
a round harmony of golden guineas ?' naively acknowledging
that without baptism there is no . . . market !" *

1 Gentle Art, p. 126.

OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

And farther on he said :

"As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the
poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do
with harmony of sound or color.

" The great musicians knew this. Beethoven and the rest
wrote music, — simply music ; symphony in this key, con-
certo or sonata in that.

"On F or G they constructed celestial harmonies, — as
harmonies, — combinations evolved from the chorus of F or
G and their minor correlatives.

"This is pure music as distinguished from airs, — common-
place and vulgar in themselves, but interesting from their
associations, — as, for instance, 'Yankee Doodle, or ' Partant
pour la Syrie.'

" Art should be independent of all clap-trap, should stand
alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without
confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as de-
votion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have
no kind of concern with it ; and that is why I insist on calling
my works ' arrangements' and ' harmonies.' " ^

And concerning the portrait of his mother, which
nearly every one admires for the subject while few
pause to consider the color, he wrote :

"Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal
Academy as an ' Arrangement in Gray and Black.' Now,
that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my
mother ; but what can or ought the public to care about the
identity of the portrait ?' ' '

Within these few lines are contained Whistler's
whole philosophy of art, his convictions and his

1 Gentle Art, pp. 127, 128. "^ Ibid., p. 128.



intentions ; the words are so plain a child may read
and comprehend their meaning, and yet people will
not understand him.

Whistler's art was purely sensuous, as the finest
music is sensuous. He had no interest whatsoever
in the many problems of life and death, in the story
of any person or the traditions of any place.

He had less interest in the associations connected
with Old Battersea Bridge than the boatman lazily
floating by ; but at certain hours and under certain
conditions, at twilight or at dusk, or in the fog, it
made a long, tremulous line which pleased him, and
he painted it.

The fact that the Thames bounds English his-
tory was of no consequence to him ; but the muddy
river between lines of buildings and wharves and
shipping, and covered by boats and crossed by
bridges, furnished him endless compositions in line
and color.

The glory and the romance of Venice made no
impression on his art ; but in out-of-the-way places,
where others saw nothing, he found scenes which
inspired his etchings.

As an etcher and a lithographer Whistler played
with the mystery of line, as in painting he played
with the mystery of color.

There is an art of pure line as there is an art of
pure form and of pure color. It is just as possible
to make a lot of meaningless lines which please the
eye in their curves and endless variety as it is to
please the eye with combinations of colors,


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Decorative patterns and designs, aside from
color, are simply line harmonies.

A child loves to make straight and round and
curved lines upon slate or paper.

The eye follows lines with a delight akin to that
taken in form and color.

When the Savoy Hotel was in process of con-
struction, and the great steel beams thrust them-
selves upward towards the sky, and there was a
lattice-work of girders and a veritable song of line.
Whistler, seeing it one day from a neighboring win-
dow, exclaimed :

" Hurry ; where are my things ? I must catch
that now, for it will never again be so beautiful."

High buildings, mechanical processes, modern
costumes had no terrors for him, simply because he
had no sentiment concerning them ; if they fur-
nished him beauties of line or color he cared not
whether they were new or old.

Whistler's art was as devoid of sentiment as that
of a Japanese.

To our Western notions the everlasting convention
that serves for a face in Japanese art seems hope-
lessly monotonous. To them our painstaking char-
acterization of the features and peculiarities of each
person is no art at all, but grotesque caricature ;
it is the subordination of art which is of universal
interest to the eccentricities of the individual which
are of local interest.

In Whistler's art one must not look for any solu-



tion of the problems of life, for any sign of the
emotions which control human conduct, — for love
and hate and fear, for hope and ambition, for the
tortures of jealousy or the bitterness of despair, —
these are all absent ; his art is pure and serene. His
works are to painting what the " Ode to a Grecian
Urn" or "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is to
poetry, and hence in human interest they fall far
short of the tragedies, the epics, the romances of
literature and art, and they must not be judged by
standards he did not seek to emulate. He could no
more have painted a " Crucifixion" or a " Last
Judgment" than he could have carved the " Moses"
or written " Hamlet." In every sense, save that of
abstract beauty of line and color, other painters
have excelled Whistler, but as the master of pure
line and color harmonies he is supreme.

Whistler's etchings and photographs were simply
compositions in line, delightful harmonies in black
and white. It is too bad to preserve their names or
identify them with any locality, for their exquisite
art is better appreciated if no distracting considera-
tion is aroused. But, oddly enough, he occasionally
made concessions in the naming of these that he
did not in the naming of his paintings.

Take, for instance, that charming lithograph,
" Confidences in the Garden," — two ladies walking
in the corner of an old garden. The garden is in
the rear of his Paris home on the Rue du Bac. The
ladies are probably Mrs. Whistler and her sister. But


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

what does it add to the print to call it "Confidences
in the Garden" ? Nothing at all. On the contrary,
the title at once suggests a host of considerations
which conflict with the abstract enjoyment of the

That sort of a title is precisely what he condemns
for his paintings. It is, however, one of the very
few instances where his titles suggest anything more
than the obvious subject. For the most part he was
consistent in choosing names that do not distract.

Even the portraits he did not care to have known

as "Portrait of Mr. A ," or "Portrait of Lady

C ," thereby catering first to the vanity of a sit-
ter, then to the idle curiosity of the multitude. His
portraits were compositions in line and color, and,
as such, were artistic creations. That they happened
also to be portraits of certain individuals was a
mere coincidence. The portrait feature, upon which
people lay so much stress, was of the least conse-
quence to him ; and just because he did not permit
the photographic element to move him, he secured
results which are far beyond the art of the "por-

The sense of color is so lost to painters, as well as
to laymen, that to talk of color compositions as one
speaks of sound compositions is to challenge doubt
and occasion surprise. And yet there is a music of
color even as there is a music of sound, and there
should be a delight in color composition even as
there is a delight in sound composition ; and this



delight should be something fundamentally distinct
from any interest in the subject of the composition.
The subject may be a man, or a woman, or a field,
or a tree, or a wave, or a cloud, or just nothing at all
— mere masses or streaks of color ; the perfection or
the imperfection of the color arrangement remains
the same.

That the color-sense is lost to laymen, critics, and
painters is evidenced by the ridicule that for thirty
years was heaped upon Whistler for calling his pic-
tures "harmonies," "symphonies," "nocturnes,"
etc. ; for adopting the more or less abstract nomen-
clature of sound compositions — music — to describe
color compositions.

One paper described them as " some figure pieces,
which this artist exhibits as ' harmonies' in this, that,
or the other, being, as they are, mere rubs-in of
color, have no claims to be regarded as pictures."
Another says, "A dark bluish surface, with dots on
it, and the faintest adumbrations of shape under the
darkness, is gravely called a ' Nocturne in Black and
Gold.'" Again, "Two of Mr. Whistler's 'color-
symphonies,' a ' Nocturne in Blue and Gold,' and a
'Nocturne in Black and Gold.' If he did not ex-
hibit these as pictures under peculiar and, what
seems to most people, pretentious titles they would
be entitled to their due meed of admiration. But
they only come one step nearer pictures than deli-
cately graduated tints on a wall-paper do."

And so in endless iteration and reiteration.

It never occurred to either painters or critics to


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

judge the pictures as if they were in reaUty so
many " delicately graduated tints on a wall-paper."
The color-sense was deficient. The pictures were
judged by their composition, their subjects, — or,
rather, not appreciated at all, but condemned, on ac-
count of their titles, which expressed exactly what the
painter desired to convey, — namely, his attempts to
produce harmonies in color independently of subject.

So far from Whistler's titles being absurd, they
were so many frank attempts to tell the public what
the painter was really trying to do. He might have
been more obscure, like many a composer of music,
and simply said, " Opus I.," or " Optis XX.," and so
on. He did call three of his early pictures "Sym-
phony in White, No. I.," "Symphony in White, No.
II.," and "Symphony in White, No. III. ;" but the
first, a full-length figure, was also known as the
"White Girl" of the "Salon des Refuses," 1863;
the second, a three-quarter length of a young girl
in white, standing by a mantel, as "The Little
White Girl ;" while the third, with no other title, is
of two girls in white.

But for the most part he chose to describe each
particular work as an arrangement of blue and sil-
ver, or black and gray, or flesh-color and brown,
according to the predominating tones of the compo-
sition, thereby aiding the eye of the observer.

There are beauties of form devoid of color ;
There are beauties of color devoid of form ;
There are beauties of form and color combined.



Of the foregoing the first is famihar in sculpture,
and the third is famihar in painting, but the second
is scarcely observed at all, though color without
form is found wherever color is used decoratively.

The ordinary house-painter endeavors to secure
agreeable effects by the mere arrangement of colors.
The interior-decorator endeavors — for the most part
with disastrous results — to secure agreeable effects
by the mere distribution of color. In a crude way
the house-painter, the sign-painter, the decorator,
the dyer, the dress-maker, are all color-composers,
their object being to produce harmonies in color
quite irrespective of line and form. They know
nothing about drawing, they know nothing about
modelling, but they try to please the eye by color

To rightly understand the color-sense let us briefly
consider the matter from its scientific side.

The ear has a range of musical sounds of from
sixteen and one-half air-vibrations per second — the
note of the lowest pipe of the great organ — to four
thousand seven hundred and fifty-two vibrations per
second, the highest note of the piccolo of the
orchestra, — a range of about eight octaves.

Below sixteen and one-half vibrations per second,
and above four thousand seven hundred and fifty-
two, — as high, in fact, as forty thousand, — sounds
are audible, but not musical, being either too low
and throbbing or two high and piercing to be


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

In all countries this range of musical sounds is
divided into octaves, — the octave of any given note
having simply double the number of air-vibrations.

At the present time, in the Western world, each
octave is divided, as every one knows, into twelve
notes, indicated on the piano by the seven white
keys and the five black.

For instance, the middle C of the piano has two
hundred and sixty-four vibrations per second, the C
above has, of course, just double, or five hundred
and twenty-eight vibrations per second. In the
chromatic scale these two hundred and sixty-four
vibrations, which make the octave, are divided into
only twelve intervals, an average of twenty-two
vibrations to the interval. In the octavo above the
average would be twice that, or forty-four, and so
on doubling to the end.

There is a change in pitch with the addition of
so much as a fraction of a vibration per second.
As a matter of fact, musicians can detect the varia-
tion of pitch caused by the difference of half a
vibration per second in the middle octaves ; the
power to detect changes in pitch due to fractional
changes in vibrations decreasing towards the bass
and treble.

With this power of discriminating a thousand
degrees of pitch in a single octave the Western
world is content to arbitrarily and mechanically
divide the octave into but twelve tones and semi-

The Arabic octave contains twenty-four quarter-



tones, and Oriental nations generally take cogni-
zance of intervals so small they seem to us discords.
Helmholtz requested a distinguished musician to
investigate this matter in Cairo, and this is the
report :

"This evening I have been listening attentively to the
song on the minarets, to try to appreciate the quarter-tones,
which I had not supposed to exist, as I had thought that the
Arabs sang out of tune. But to-day as I was with the der-
vishes I became certain that such quarter-tones existed, and
for the following reasons : Many passages in litanies of this
kind end with a tone which was at first the quarter-tone and
ended in the pure tone. As the passage was frequently re-
peated, I was able to observe this every time, and I found
the intonation invariable." ^

All of which goes to show how susceptible the
highly-trained ear is to fine gradations and combina-
tions of sound and how easy it is to become accus-
tomed to coarse intervals when the finer are no
longer used.

The various notes as sounded by a great variety
of musical instruments constitute the raw material
from which the composer and performer produce
melodies and harmonies absolutely unknown to
nature, and which — judged by the only possible
standard, their emotional and intellectual effects —
are incomparably finer than any sounds in nature,

1 Helmholtz, Sensations of Tone, p. 265.


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

finer because a human utterance, the play of soul
upon soul.

The eye has a range of color-notes from four
hundred millions of millions of ether-vibrations per
second, the rate of the deepest red of the spectrum,
to seven hundred and fifty millions of millions, the
rate of the violet rays. The following table of
vibration rates of the colors of the spectrum shows
the vibration intervals which divide the pronounced
colors : ^

Color-sensation. Ether-vibrations per second.

Deep red 400 millions of millions.

Red-orange 437

Yellow-orange 457

Yellow 509

Green . . 570

Blue-green 617

Blue-violet 696

Violet 750

This color-scale, as produced by a great variety
of agents, — such as colored lights, glass, stones,
metals, fabrics, dyes, stains, pigments, etc., — consti-
tutes the raw material from which the color-com-
poser, painter, and decorator produce melodies
and harmonies absolutely unknown to nature, and,
judged as musical sounds are judged, are incom-

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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 11 of 18)