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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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parably finer than effects in nature, because essen-



1 Fleming, Waves and Ripples in Water, Air, and ALther,
p. 252.

189



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

tially human, because produced by man for their
emotional and intellectual effect upon man.

Theoretically the variation of a single ether-vibra-
tion per second changes the shade of the color ; but
while the trained ear can detect the variation in
pitch due to a half-vibration of air per second more
or less, ether-vibrations are so incomparably more
rapid that the best the trained eye can do is detect
about one thousand different tints in the spectrum.
In other words, there must be an increase or de-
crease of three hundred and fifty thousand millions
of ether-vibrations before even the practised eye is
consciously affected.

It is, however, altogether likely that while the
eye is not consciously affected without these great
variations in frequency, it is unconsciously affected,
and susceptibility to and skill in handling color
depend upon this unconscious susceptibility.

It is pretty well established that the range of
color-vision cannot be materially extended below
the red or above the violet by practice, but suscep-
tibility to color variations and the ability to distin-
guish gradations of tone within the scale can be
increased almost indefinitely.

Education of the color-sense is the development
of this uncojtscious susceptibility, — of the feeling
for, as distinguished from a knowledge of, color.

A man may know all about color and have no
feeling for it. On the other hand, a man may be
singularly susceptible to color-effects without being
able to name correctly a dozen shades.

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Nothing educates the color-sense so much as
steady contemplation of color-harmonies in nature
and art. But unless a man possesses an instinctive
feeling for color he will never select the best ex-
amples ; whereas if his eye is exceedingly suscepti-
ble he will intuitively cling to the best the world
affords.

Whistler was gifted with susceptibility to color in
an extraordinary degree. Where, by way of illustra-
tion, the untrained eye can distinguish one or two
hundred shades of color in the spectrum and the
highly-trained eye a thousand, Whistler could prob-
ably distingush two thousand, and possibly feel as
many more.

In fact, so keen was his susceptibility to color
that intervals — to use, very legitimately, the musical
term — quite imperceptible to others affected him
greatly.

The neck-tie of a sitter once caused him no end
of trouble.

The suit the sitter was wearing was of a light-
brown tone ; the ulster was of a darker Scotch
plaid, — all softened in tone by time and wear. In
so many shades of brown it certainly seemed to the
casual eye that the shade of the brown silk tie the
sitter had on found a place. But, no; to Whistler it
was a discordant note, though half hidden by the
garments. All available ties were exhausted, — even
those of friends and neighboring artists were levied

191



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

upon. Others could see nothing inharmonious in
many of the ties that were tried ; but they made
Whistler positively uncomfortable, — just as uncom-
fortable as the leader of an orchestra is when an in-
strument plays a discord ; and it was not until the
"Bon Marche" had been ransacked — for, not ties,
but simply fabrics in shades of brown — that a piece
was found that would answer.

Then, mark you, the brown of the tie was by no
means reproduced in the portrait, but the brown as
modified by all the browns and notes of the entire
costume, and as still further modified by all the
browns and all the notes and shades and lights of
the studio.

During this search for a note of brown — a search
which seemed to the sitter, and even to artist friends,
finical in the extreme — the great painter one after-
noon justified himself by showing some little pastel
sketches of a model with bits of transparent drapery
floatincr about her. The sketches were on coarse
brown board, and about ten or twelve inches high
by five or six wide, and there were just a few strokes
of almost imperceptible color to indicate the flesh
tones and the draperies, all so slight as to scarce
attract notice ; and yet each of the filmy bits of
drapery had been dyed by the painter with as much
care to secure the desired notes as he would take in
painting a portrait.

No one who has not seen him at work can form
any adequate notion of his extreme susceptibility
to infinitesimal variations of color ; it exceeded that

192



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

of any painter of whom the Western world has suffi-
cient record for comparison.
A Frenchman has said :

" Whistler's works are dreams of color. The gray of them
is unique. It is made of white, blue, green, of all the tints.
It is the tender gray of England's coasts, of the North Sea,
and of the sky that in summer is above it ; the horizon gray
where the pale blue of the sky and the pale green of the sea
unite and form one.

"It is a subtle shade, in accord with the penumbras in
which he delighted. He was the musician of the rainbow.
No one understood as well as he the mysterious relations of
painting and of music, the seven notes and the seven colors,
and the way to play these with the sharps and flats of the
prism. Even as a symphony is in D or a sonata is in A, his
pictures were orchestrated according to a tone, — the ' Lady
with the Iris,' for example, a mauve flower placed in the
hand of the figure, as a note and signifying that the portrait
was to be a colored polyphony of lilac and of violets.

"More precision is lent to this curious aesthetic by the
titles that he gave to certain small canvases representing
twihghts of Venice and of London, which he entitled • Noc-
turnes,' in a parallel with those of Chopin, but of a Chopin
serene and who dreams instead of a Chopin ill and who
weeps. There, as in portraits, the gray of England's coasts
appears, but bluer. It has in portraits the tints of twilight
in ashes. In all his works he reveals the land of his origin,
the land that has produced Edgar Allan Poe. ' '

Many stories are told illustrating his suscepti-
bility to color. Some of them are pointless ; but
the fact they are told at all shows how this trait im-
pressed both the artists and the public.

" One morning he had an engagement at a banker's, where
he was to receive a large sum of money for a set of etchings,
^3 193



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

a sum that he happened to need very much at that time.
He was busy chatting and showing some of his things to an
appreciative visitor, who happened to know the circum-
stances, and considerately reminded him that he had far to
go and that the American would probably be in a hurry and
would not wait.

" 'Yes,' said Whistler ; 'but just look at this now,' pulling
forward another canvas. And so it went on, until his friend
said : ' Whistler, you really must go ! That man will never
wait for you.'

" ' What a nuisance you are !' he exclaimed ; but he got
ready, and they started.

" They were tearing down the street at a great rate, when
Whistler suddenly stopped the cab and made the driver go
back to a certain spot, — and they had to go backwards and
forwards for quite a while before they found the exact place,
— in order to get a view of a certain little green-grocer's shop,
with his fruit and vegetables outside, striped awnings, etc.

' ' Whistler put up his hands for a frame, squinted and
twisted. 'Beautiful!' he exclaimed. 'Lovely! I'm going
to do that ; but I think I'll have him move the oranges over
to the right more, and that green, now — let me see '

"'Whistler!' cried his friend, 'do come along! That
man will be home in New York before we get there !'

" ' What a nuisance you are !' declared Whistler, and was
sulky the rest of the way.

' • It was not a pose. The painter was so enchanted by what
he saw that banker and money were nothing to him at that
moment."



And it is said a visitor once found him at work in
his studio.

"The furniture was of a pale gray ; the hangings
were of the same color ; the window shades were
of gray ; the model a woman with gray eyes, wear-

194



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

ing a gray costume ; and the costume of the painter
was also of the same prevailing color.

" Whistler refused to talk with his visitor until he
had removed his flaming red cravat ; and, after a
few minutes' conversation, commented upon the
fact that the tone values of his coat and trousers
were out of harmony."

An exaggeration, but it all might have occurred ;
for has he not himself described, in "Gentle Art,"
how the loud dress of a critic destroyed his exhibi-
tion. "To have seen him, O, my wise Atlas, was
my privilege and my misery, — for he stood under
one of my own 'harmonies,' already with diffi-
culty gasping its gentle breath, himself an amazing
'arrangement' in strong mustard-and-cress, with
bird's-eye belcher of Reckitt's blue, and then and
there destroyed absolutely, unintentionally, and
once for all, my year's work !"

The analogy between the musical scale and the
color scale has been many times noted.
Helmholtz ^ draws the following analogy :

F Jf End of the red.

G Red.

G# Red.

A Red.

A J Orange-red.

B Orange.



1 Physiological Optics, p. 237.
195



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

c Yellow.

c J Green.

d Greenish-blue.

d J Cyanogen-blue.

e Indigo-blue.

f Violet.

f }f Violet.

g Ultra-violet.

g J Ultra-violet.

a Ultra-violet.

a Jj! Ultra-violet.

b End of the solar spectrum.

There is, of course, this fundamental difference
between the two senses : the action of air-waves
upon the ear is mechanical, simply a succession of
beats, while the action of ether-waves upon the
retina is chemical in its character.

The true analogy lies in the simple fact that the
ear is susceptible to certain sounds produced by air-
waves of certain frequencies, while the eye is sus-
ceptible to certain colors produced by ether-waves
of certain frequencies, and it is possible to mechani-
cally combine in one case the sounds so as to pro-
duce harmonies that please the ear, and in the other
case the colors so as to produce harmonies that
please the eye ; and so far as pure sound and pure
color is concerned, the harmonious compositions
need have no relation, imitative or otherwise, to
anything in nature.

The uneducated ear prefers melodies which are
more or less suggestive of sounds heard in nature, —

196



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

more or less realistic imitations of songs of birds,
rippling of waters, falling of rain, rustling of leaves,
crashing of thunder, etc. ; or if familiar sounds are
not imitated, the title of the composition must sug-
gest some incident, place, or scene more or less
familiar, so the deficient ear may be helped out by
the imagination.

The highly-trained ear, on the other hand, delights
in abstract compositions of sound, in harmonies
which have no perceptible relation to any sound in
nature, and which do not suggest any person, scene,
or incident in literature or history.

The purer the taste in music the more abstract the
compositions that satisfy.

So far as the appreciation of color harmonies is
concerned, the taste of the Western world is like unto
that of the uneducated ear in music.

We are not content with pure color compositions
as we are with pure sound, but we demand either
imitations of natural objects or representations of
historical, literary, religious, or emotional subjects.
We must have something besides pure line and color.

A musician may strike a succession of notes, or a
chord, and we are pleased, the ear is satisfied ; but
if the painter simply sweeps his brush several times
across the canvas, we are not satisfied, though the
combination of colors be something more beautiful
and harmonious than anything ever seen. It is not
a "picture" to us ; it lacks the "subject" to which
we are accustomed.

And yet there are in existence certain canvases

197



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

by Whistler which are little more than color-schemes,
and which in color-effects are among the most beau-
tiful things he ever painted ; and in all the galleries
of Europe there is nothing to compare with them
in pure joyousness of color.

As children and men we enjoy the color-effects
of fireworks against the blackness of night, and we
enjoy the darkness and the shadows about us, the
sudden light upon expectant faces, the dark-moving
figures in the intervals. All this is delight in color, —
color without sentiment, color without story, color
without other thought or reflection than pure sen-
suous enjoyment ; and we even feel the tawdry
cheapness of the attempt when by set arrangement
the features of some local or national celebrity are
presented. But when an artist who sees such a night-
scene and paints it in such manner that the color-
scheme is preserved and its beauty enhanced in trans-
lation, we demand something more. We demand,
as did Burne-Jones, " detail and composition," — in
short, we demand the features of our local celebrity.

Until we learn to love color, as we love music, for
its own sake, there will never be any decorations of
homes and public buildings that will be worth while.

In days long gone by, in Italy during the Renais-
sance and before, in Greece during the Golden Age,
color was enjoyed for the sake of color, regardless
of the dictates of nature. If an Italian felt like
making a background of blue or gold, he did so ;
if a Greek felt like painting and gilding his sculpture,

198



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

he did so, until the Parthenon and its contents must
have been gorgeous with color, laid on, not after the
precepts of nature, but for the most part arbitrarily,
to please the eye.

All decoration begins with nature and ends in
convention.

In this progress from birth in the imitation of
natural forms and colors to death in the rigidity of
a hard and lifeless convention there is a maturity
wherein lines and contours and colors play with
perfect freedom, original forms and models being
absorbed in the finer creations of the imagination.

Ruskin habitually confused the use of color with
the painting of light ; while in truth there is no
necessary connection at all between colorists and
ligJitists, — to coin a word that will very legitimately
mark a distinction.

The painting of light is the distinguishing feature
of nineteenth-century art, and Turner was the
apostle crying in the wilderness of darkness ; he
was the first to successfully attempt the realization
of sunlight. He keyed his palette up with the sun
as the objective point, while the Italians who had
influenced him had keyed theirs up simply to pro-
duce color-effects. They decorated walls and altars
and painted pictures — as a potter decorates his
earthen bowl — to please the eye.

Although Ruskin habitually speaks of Turner as
a colorist, and undoubtedly says a great many fine
things concerning color, he did not care at all for

199



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

color apart from the delineation of form. To him
color was useful only as a mode of drawing ; in
itself it was as nothing at all.

Speaking of his so-called "truths" of color, he
says :

"All truths of color sink at once into the second rank.
He, therefore, who has neglected a truth of form for a truth
of color has neglected a great truth for a less one.

"That color is indeed a most unimportant characteristic
of objects will be farther evident on the slightest considera-
tion. The color of plants is constantly changing with the
season, and of everything with the quality of light falling
on it ; but the nature and essence of the thing are indepen-
dent of these changes. An oak is an oak, whether green
with spring or red with winter ; a dahlia is a dahlia, whether
it be yellow or crimson ; and if some monster-hunting botanist
should ever frighten the flower blue, still it will be a dahlia ;
but let one curve of the petals, one groove of the stamens,
be wanting, and the flower ceases to be the same. ' ' ^

" The most convincing proof of the unimportance of color
lies in the accurate observation of the way in which any
material object impresses itself on the mind. If we look at
nature carefully we shall find that her colors are in a state
of perpetual confusion and indistinctness, while her forms, as
told by light and shade, are invariably clear, distinct, and
speaking. The stones and gravel of the bank catch green
reflections from the boughs above ; the bushes receive grays
and yellows from the ground ; every hairbreadth of polished
surface gives a little bit of the blue sky or the gold of the sun,
like a star upon the local color ; this local color, changeful
and uncertain in itself, is again disguised and modified by
the hue of the light or quenched in the gray of the shadow ;
and the confusion and blending of tint is altogether so great



^ Modern Painters, vol. i., partii., sec. i., chap, v., par. 3.

200



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

that were we left to find out what objects were by their colors
only, we would scarcely in places distinguish the boughs of a
tree from the air beyond them or the ground beneath them."

"We shall see hereafter, in considering ideas of beauty,
that color, even as a source of pleasure, is feeble compared to
form. But this we cannot insist upon at present, — we have
only to do with simple truth ; and the observations we have
made are sufficient to prove that the artist who sacrifices or
forgets a truth of form in the pursuit of a truth of color sac-
rifices what is definite to what is uncertain and what is
essential to what is accidental." ^

"It is, indeed, by this that the works of Turner are
peculiarly distinguished from those of all other colorists, — by
the dazzhng intensity, namely, of the light which he sheds
through every hue, and which, far more than their brilliant
color, is the real source of their overpowering effect upon the
eye, an effect so reasonably made the subject of perpetual
animadversion, as if the sun which they represent were a
quiet, and subdued, and gentle, and manageable luminary,
and never dazzled anybody, under any circumstances what-
soever. I am fond of standing by a bright Turner in the
Academy, to listen to the unintentional compliments of the
crowd, — 'What a glaring thing !' ' I declare I can't look at
it !' ' Don't it hurt your eyes ?' — expressed as if they were in
the constant habit of looking the sun full in the face with
the most perfect comfort and entire facility of vision. It is
curious after hearing people malign some of Turner's noble
passages of light to pass to some really ungrammatical and
false pictures of the old masters in which we have color given
without light. ' ' '

"What I am next about to say with respect to Turner's
color I should wish to be received with caution, as it admits



1 Modern Painters, vol. i., partii., sec. i., chap, v., par. 8, 9.
* Ibid., sec. ii., chap, ii., par. 12.

201



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

of dispute. I think that the first approach to viciousness of
color in any master is commonly indicated chiefly by a prev-
alence of purple and an absence of yellow. I think nature
mixes yellow with almost every one of her hues, never, or
very rarely, using red without it, but frequently using yellow
with scarcely any red ; and I believe it will be in consequence
found that her favorite opposition, that which generally char-
acterizes and gives tone to her color, is yellow and black,
passing, as it retires, into white and blue. It is beyond dis-
pute that the great fundamental opposition of Rubens is yel-
low and black, and that on this, concentrated in one part
of the picture and modified in various grays throughout,
chiefly depend the tones of all his finest works. And in
Titian, though there is a far greater tendency to the purple
than in Rubens, I believe no red is ever mixed with the pure
blue, or glazed over it, which has not in it a modifying quan-
tity of yellow. At all events, I am nearly certain that what-
ever rich and pure purples are introduced locally by the great
colorists nothing is so destructive of all fine color as the
slightest tendency to purple in general tone ; and I am
equally certain that Turner is distinguished from all the
vicious colorists of the present day by the foundation of all
his tones being black, yellow, and the intermediate grays,
while the tendency of our common glare- seekers is invariably
to pure, cold, impossible purples."

"Powerful and captivating and faithful as his color is, it
is the least important of all his excellences, because it is the
least important feature of nature. He paints in color, but
he thinks in light and shade ; and, were it necessary, rather
than lose one line of his forms or one ray of his sunshine,
would, I apprehend, be content to paint in black and white
to the end of his life." ^



1 Modern Painters, vol. i., part ii., sec. ii., chap, ii., par.
17, 20.

202



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

For practical purposes truths of form are more
essential than ' truths' of color ; to mistake the size,
shape, solidity, and texture of anything is far more
disastrous than to mistake its color. The color-
blind get on very well in the world, often without
knowing their defect ; but a person who was form-
blind would not get on at all.

The correct appreciation of form is of such vital
importance that two senses are brought to bear, — the
sense of touch — the parent sense — as well as the
sense of sight ; and without the co-operation of the
sense of touch, sight would be comparatively help-
less in recognizing solidity, texture, contours, etc.
In the appreciation of form touch gets on very well
without sight, while sight could not get on at all
without touch ; but, happily, a sense so precious is
never completely lost.

Ruskin constantly uses the phrases, "truths of
form," "truths of color," and it is apparent that by
these phrases he really means fidelity to natural
effects. With him a drawing, be it of a stone, a leaf,
a tree, a mountain, is not true unless it corresponds
to the thing in nature ; nor is a light or a shadow
or a color true unless it corresponds to the effect in
nature.

Now, so far as art is concerned, those so-called
" truths" are of the least importance.

Suppose a musician were to talk of " truths of
sound," meaning thereby the more or less faithful
imitation of the songs of birds, the rippling of
waters, the roll of thunder. Every one would

203



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

know that his art was of the most primitive char-
acter.

"Truths of sound," in the sense that Ruskin
speaks of "truths of form" and "truths of color,"
are not tolerated in music. To attain certain effects,
dramatic in character, imitations of sounds in nature
are sometimes introduced, but sparingly, and unless
with great skill the effect is disagreeable to even the
uneducated ear, and if pressed too far it becomes
grotesque.

One art is like unto another, and what are really
"truths" in one are "truths" in another. It is im-
material whether the sense of hearing, sight, or
touch is appealed to ; it does not matter whether it
is a composition of sound, of color, of line, or of
form that is under consideration, the fundamental
principles of the art are the same ; and one of the
fundamental propositions is : imitation is fatal to
pure art.

It is the business of art to improve on nature, to
take the raw materials nature furnishes — her forces,
her forms, her lines, her colors, her lights and
shadows, her sounds, her odors, her flavors — and pro-
duce from them harmonious and agreeable effects
unknown to nature.

Whistler has said :

"The imitator is a poor kind of creature. If the man
who paints only the tree or flower or other surface he sees
before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the
photographer. It is for the artist to do something beyond
this : in portrait-painting to put on canvas something more

204



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

than the face the model wears for that one day, — to paint the
man, in short, as well as his features ; in arrangement of
colors to treat a flower as his key, not as his model. "^



Art begins with "truths," in the Ruskin sense,
and flowers in "harmonies," in the Whistler sense.
It begins with the concrete, with imitation, with
fidelity to natural effects, and it develops by a
process of abstraction until it attains the chaste


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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 12 of 18)