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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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perfection of a Greek temple or a Beethoven sym-

Nature is never left entirely behind, and some
arts are more dependent upon her than others ; but,
generally speaking, the more abstract the art the
higher it is ; the purer and freer it is from imitation
or suggestion of natural effects, the nobler its
attainment. Because poetry and music are almost
entirely independent of nature and natural effects,
do they as arts, from one point of view, outrank
sculpture and painting.

Ruskin, of course, was by no means blind to
these considerations, and when he talked of " truths
of form" and "truths of color" he did not mean
literal imitation, but he did mean the fidelity of a
draughtsman, of a man whose eye and mind were on
the thing or effect before him ; and his great work is
one long attempt to show that Turner in his brilliant
and fanciful compositions was still clinging close to

^Gentle Art, p. 128.


nature, that he painted rocks and trees and clouds
and sunlight as they really were, and more beautifully
than any man before or since.

All of which goes to show that Turner was not
a colorist in the sense Whistler was.

The one used color as a means, the other as an
end. To the one color, like line, or like black and
white, was incidental to his composition — the com-
position, the conception, the dream, the fancy, —
in short, the subject, being all important. To the
other harmonies in color was the end in view, almost
to the exclusion in some of the nocturnes of line
and of form.

To Ruskin, even more than with Turner, color
was simply a means to an end, — the more perfect
imitation of nature ; hence his utter lack of sympa-
thy for Whistler's work.

To pure color arrangements Ruskin was blind. He
demanded a relation and significance beyond the
mere color harmony. Lines or waves of color placed
side by side arbitrarily, and with no more relation to
nature than so many notes of music, had no mean-
ing for him, whereas for Whistler they meant
practically all there is to the science and art of

To Ruskin the blue hair of a Greek statue would
have seemed absurd and childish ; to the Greek it
would have been simply a color-note in the place
where it was needed to perfect the color-scheme.

So utterly wanting is the sense of color-music in
the modern world that we like our sculpture in


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

either ghastly marble, or, still more perversely, with
the yellow hues and dirt and dinginess wrought by
time and the elements, whereas those who created
the greatest sculpture known subdued all garish
qualities by the use of gold and bronze and color,
not imitatively, but arbitrarily, to please a highly
cultivated fancy.

From descriptions of Ruskin's home, "Brant-
wood," it is clear that he had no craving for har-
monious effects about him. Discords did not disturb
him ; he could return with no sensations of discom-
fort from the keen appreciation of natural beauties
to rooms which would be intolerable to any one
like Whistler with an instinct for proportion and

The house had "a stucco classic portico in the
corner, painted and grained and heaped around
with lucky horseshoes, highly black-leaded." The
incongruity of the painting and graining — so con-
trary to all Ruskin's teachings — and black-leaded
horseshoes surprised even his friendly biographer.

His own room "he papered with naturalistic
fancies to his own taste," and on the walls were " a
Diirer engraving, some Prouts and Turners, a couple
of old Venetian heads, and Meissonier's ' Napo-
leon,' " — a typical collector's conglomeration.

The walls of the dining-room were painted " duck-
egg," whatever that color may be, and covered with
an even more heterogeneous collection of pictures,
— " the ' Doge of Gritta,' a bit saved from the great



Titian that was burnt in the fire at the Ducal
Palace in 1574 ; a couple of Tintorets ; Turner and
Reynolds, each painted by himself in youth ; Ra-
phael, by a pupil, so it is said ; portraits of old Mr.
and Mrs. Ruskin and little John and his ' boo
hills.' "

His study was " papered with a pattern specially
copied from Marco Marziali's ' Circumcision' in the
National Gallery, and hung with Turners." There
was a crimson arm-chair and a " polished-steel
fender, very unartistic," his biographer remarks ;
" red mahogany furniture, with startling shiny em-
erald leather chair-cushions ; red carpet and green
curtains." This is the sort of room wherein Ruskin
worked and wrote. It simply illustrates the truth
that it is one thing to write and talk about color and
a far different thing to really /<r^/ color.

It is the custom to call every man who paints in
high key or uses brilliant colors a colorist, as Rus-
kin called Turner and Rubens colorists ; but it is
not the mere use of color that makes a man a
colorist, but the use he makes of it, the object he
has in mind in using it.

The mechanical draughtsman and the architect
may use on their plans and designs all the known
colors, but no one would think of calling either a

In painting still-life a man may exhaust the palette
and yet be no colorist. In painting portraits one
man may require his sitters to dress in bright colors,


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

another in sober blacks, grays, or browns, with the
result that one set of portraits fairly dazzle the be-
holder, while the other scarce attracts attention ; and
yet the former may not be the work of a colorist
while the latter may.

The determining factor is the attitude of the
painter towards color. If he uses color imitatively,
or as incidental to drawing, or as a means to some
end other than the production of color harmonies,
he is not a colorist ; but if his delight is in color, if
he uses color for the sake of color, for the sake of
charming the eye, as the ear is charmed by music,
then he is a colorist.

No hard and fast line of demarcation can be
drawn, since every painter is something of a color-
ist ; but between the two extremes of the painter on
one hand who uses color imitatively or as incidental
to drawing and the colorist who produces and de-
lights in pure color schemes and harmonies there is
a wide intei'val.

Whistler, in his love of color, approached the lat-
ter extreme ; but it was only when he practised
decoration that he could indulge his fancy without
limitations. When he brought the Leyland dining-
room into harmony with his " Princess of the Land
of Porcelain" by the use of blue and gold, line
and form — though somewhat apparent — were virtu-
ally negligible quantities ; and when he arranged
the reception-room of the house in Rue du Bac, and
his own studio, the only considerations were the

14 209


In his "White Girl" of 1863 Whistler began in
a large way his symphonies in color ; and while in
pictures like the "Thames in Ice," "The Music
Room," and "At the Piano" he painted along
more conventional lines, these departures were in-
frequent and in themselves exhibited his predilec-
tion for color. It was simply impossible for him to
paint any picture without making the color harmony
a prime object.

Not long after the "White Girl," which was
"Symphony in White, No. I.," followed the other
experiments in white, known as Symphonies Nos.
II. and III.

Then came — the chronological order is not im-
portant — the Japanese group, "The Princess of the
Land of Porcelain," "The Gold Screen," "The
Balcony," the " Lange Leizen," and others, in which
the figures and accessories, though still promi-
nent, were made subordinate to the brilliant color
schemes. The compositions were still obvious, but
the color incomparably more so.

Then the " Nocturnes," in which detail and com-
position were refined away, and little remained but
color-effects so exquisite that they seemed, and still
seem, beyond the power of brush, and more like
some thin glazes and enamels than paintings on

As music in color the "Nocturnes" and certain
of the "Harmonies" and "Symphonies," wherein
detail is as nothing and the color everything, are
Whistler's most exquisite — the word is used ad-


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

visedly — achievements. Others will equal his por-
traits before they equal his "Nocturnes."

As a still further step towards pure color compo-
sition he had in mind for years a series of pictures,
pure creations of fancy, somewhat suggestive of the
Japanese group, but less realistic — just color-music.
Happily, the sketches are in existence, and afford
some indication of the color-dreams that floated
through the great painter's imagination. They show
how musical color is when freed from entangling
associations and used broadly and decoratively.

We have, then, the following phases, rather than
" periods," in his mastery of color :

1. That wherein composition and detail predomi-
nate, though color is the motive.

2. That wherein composition and detail are still
conspicuous, but are subordinate to the color

3. That wherein composition and detail are
practically lost in the effort to produce subtle color

4. That wherein the sole object is color-music,
quite regardless of other considerations.

This progress from the, so to speak, tentative use
of color in connection with more or less conven-
tional composition to the triumph of color and sup-
pression of composition is abundantly illustrated in
his works. It would not be difficult to arrange an
exhibition of four groups of about three canvases
each, which would illustrate each phase. Such an



exhibition would do more to enlighten the public
regarding his work than any number of exhibitions
of a large number of pictures gathered and grouped
in the usual way.

Regarding the use of flat tones he is reported to
have once said :

"House-painters have the right idea about paint-
ing, God bless them."

How far removed from Ruskin, who said :

" Hence, wherever in a painting we have unva-
ried color extended even over a small space, there
is falsehood. Nothing can be natural which is mo-
notonous ; nothing true which only tells one story."

To Ruskin nature was all in all ; to Whistler
color was of first consideration. The one looked at
color to find natural effects ; the other looked at
nature to find color-effects.

Whistler chose intuitively those scenes and those
hours of the day when he would be least hampered
by rigid requirements of line and form.

He frequently painted the sea under strong light ;
but under any light water presents itself in broken
lines and large masses.

He was a master of line in the high sense that
with a few lines he could render not only the char-
acter but the characteristics of whatever was before
him. He was a master of form, — even as Ruskin
uses the term, — since he could, when the conditions
required it, express the most subtle contours in
terms of light and shade and color ; but he cared


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

less for the bald realities of sunlight than for the
shadows of dusk and the mysteries of night.
He has himself said :

' ' The sun blares, the wind blows from the east, the sky is
bereft of cloud, and without all is of iron. The windows of
the Crystal Palace are seen from all points of London. The
holiday-maker rejoices in the glorious day, and the painter
turns aside to shut his eyes.

" How httle this is understood, and how dutifully the
casual in nature is accepted as subhme, may be gathered
from the unlimited admiration daily produced by a very
foolish sunset.

" The dignity of the snow-capped mountain is lost in dis-
tinctness, but the joy of the tourist is to recognize the trav-
eller on the top. The desire to see for the sake of seeing
is, with the mass, alone the one to be gratified, hence the
delight in detail.

"And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with
poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves
in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili,
and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole
city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us, — then
the wayfarer hastens home ; the working-man and the cul-
tured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure cease to
understand, as they have ceased to see ; and Nature, who,
for once, has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the
artist alone, her son and her master, — her son in that he
loves her, her master in that he knows her."^

And it was his habit to paint when the studio was
filled with gloom and lengthening shadows crept
across the floor ; when it was so dark the dull eye

^ Gentle Art, pp. 143, 144.


of sitter or chance visitor could scarce distinguish
the figure on the canvas.

This " painting in the dark," as some have called
it, was a singular trait. He would paint with in-
creasing force and effect as the room became darker
and darker, until it seemed as if the falling of night
was an inspiration.

Once a sitter asked him how it was possible to
paint when it was so dark.

" As the light fades and the shadows deepen all
petty and exacting details vanish, everything trivial
disappears, and I see things as they are in great
strong masses : the buttons are lost, but the gar-
ment remains ; the garment is lost, but the sitter
remains ; the sitter is lost, but the shadow remains ;
the shadow is lost, but the picture remains. And that
night cannot efface from the painter's imagination."

People never could understand his attitude towards
nature. When he spoke of the "unlimited admira-
tion daily produced by a very foolish sunset," and
how "the dignity of the snow-capped mountain is
lost in distinctness, but the joy of the tourist is to
recognize the traveller on the top," he at once puz-
zled and irritated the lay mind, for is not the sunset
beautiful? and the traveller on the highest peak
of greater interest than the mountain ?

When a lady one day rushed up to him and en-
thusiastically exclaimed :

" Oh, Mr. Whistler, I have just been up the river,
and it reminded me so much of your pictures."


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

And he replied :

"Indeed ! Then, Nature is looking up," — people
resented it as vanity.

But it was not vanity. It was simply his attitude
towards nature and art.

If some one had said to Mendelssohn, " I have
just been in the woods and heard sounds that were
just like some of your " Songs without Words,"
Mendelssohn would have been surprised, and might
well have replied, "Then, the birds are doing better."

Concerning nature. Whistler said :

"That nature is always right is an assertion artistically
as untrue as it is one whose truth is universally taken for
granted. Nature is very rarely right ; to such an extent,
even, that it might almost be said that nature is usually
wrong. That is to say, the condition of things that shall
bring about the perfection of harmony worthy a picture is
rare, and not common at all.

"This would seem, to even the most intelligent, a doctrine
almost blasphemous. So incorporated with our education
has the supposed aphorism become, that its belief is held
to be part of our moral being ; and the words themselves
have, in our ear, the ring of religion. Still, seldom does
nature succeed in producing a picture. ' ' '

One should never confound art with nature ; they
are antithetical terms. There is no art in nature ;
there should be no nature in art. And what is art
is not nature, and what is nature is not art.

Nature is the raw material, art is the finished
product ; and art should no more resemble nature

^ Gentle Art, p. 143.


than a cave resembles a house. And to the extent
that art slavishly imitates nature is it of the cave-
dwelling variety.

There is no color that is not found in nature.
There is no combination of colors a hint of which
cannot be found in nature. But it is the business
of art to take the colors, accept the hints, and pro-
duce combinations and effects not found in nature.

It is not the business of the artist to paint any-
thing as it is, but everything as he sees it.

Yet the public demand that a tree shall be repro-
duced as tJiey see it, — that the picture shall be a
substitute for the reality. Why not go to the win-
dow and look at the tree ? For, as a tree, with its
quivering leaves and the infinite play of light and
shadow, it is more beautiful than any realistic pho-
tograph, drawing, or painting possibly could be.
But to see the reflection of the tree in the depths
of a human soul one must turn to art, to poetry, to
music, or to painting. The reflection may not at all
resemble the reality any more than Keats's " Ode
to a Nightingale" resembles the bird or the song of
the bird ; but it will be far more interesting and far
more beautiful because a human expression.

The child's mud-house and the boy's snow-man
are of greater concern to humankind than all the
plains and mountains of the earth.


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler


The Royal Society of British Artists — In Paris
once more — At Home and at Work.

In June, 1886, Whistler was elected president of
the Royal Society of British Artists.

Prior to that time he had exhibited in the rooms
of the society in Suffolk Street, and he was no
doubt elected to give life to a moribund association.
He succeeded beyond the wildest anticipations of
the most sanguine members.

He rearranged the exhibitions by excluding suffi-
cient of the unworthy to leave ample space on the
walls for the proper exhibition of such pictures as
were accepted.

When the Prince of Wales, now King Edward,
visited the galleries for the first time, Whistler, as
president, received him. And when the prince said
he had never before heard of the society and asked
its history, Whistler, with the grace of a courtier,
replied :

" It has none, your Highness. Its history dates
from to-day."

Two years of so revolutionary a president were
all the ancient association could stand. As has been
well said : ^

^ London Times, July 18, 1903.


" That Suffolk-Street episode was, perhaps, the oddest of
an odd career. The most mediocre and middle-class of all
the artistic societies of London was in low water, and the
thought occurred to some revolutionary members to make
Whistler president. It was like electing a sparrow-hawk to
rule a community of bats. Some of the bats moved out,
some followers of the sparrow-hawk came in ; but the interest-
ing new community did not last long. The suburban ladies,
who had been the support of the Society of British Artists,
were shocked at the changes. They found no pleasure in
the awning stretched across the middle of the room, the bat-
tened walls, the spaced-out ' impressionist' pictures, and the
total absence of the anecdotes and bright colors which they
loved. A few hundred visitors of another sort came, and were
charmed, but the commercial test of success was not satis-
fied. Before long Whistler ceased to be president, and the
society, under a more congruous chief, ' relapsed to its
ancient mood.' "

When he failed of re-election many of his friends

"It is all very simple," he said. "The 'Royal
Society of British Artists' has disintegrated, — the
'Artists' have come out, the 'British' remain."

When interviewed to obtain his explanation of
the "state of affairs :"

' ' The state of affairs .''' ' said Mr. Whistler, in his light and
airy way, raising his eyebrows and twinkling his eyes, as if
it were all the best possible fun in the world ; " why, my dear
sir, there's positively no state of affairs at all. Contrary to
public declaration, there's actually nothing chaotic in the
whole business. On the contrary, everything is in order, and
just as it should be, — the survival of the fittest as regards
the presidency, don't you see ; and, well — Suffolk Street is
itself again ! A new government has come in ; and, as I


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

told the members the other night, I congratulate the society
on the result of their vote : for no longer can it be said that
the right man is in the wrong place. No doubt their pristine
sense of undisturbed somnolence will again settle upon them
after the exasperated mental condition arising from the un-
natural strain recently put upon the old ship. Eh ? what ?
ha ! ha!"

He painted a signboard for the entrance to the
galleries, — a lion and a butterfly, — a " harmony in
gold and red," with which, he says, "I took as
much trouble as I did with the best picture I ever

But his successor in office clothed the golden lion
"with a coat of dirty black," and effaced the butter-
fly entirely ; whereupon he called the society to task
for destroying the work of a fellow-artist, and the
entire episode appears in the "Gentle Art" as only
he could tell it.

In 1887 he married the widow of E. W. Godwin,
the architect of the "White House," and not long
after they went to live in Paris, at 1 10 Rue du Bac.

The narrow passage-way that leads from the street
to where they lived is, like thousands of others in
Old Paris, just an archway between two shops, un-
promising and uninviting.

Passing through, one finds a small paved court
immediately in the rear, and on three sides of this
court the entrances and windows of the apartments
and houses opening therefrom.

The court itself is not without interest On one



side there is an old bronze fountain, long since dry ;
about the walls a sculptured frieze, much the worse
for wear ; everything of by-gone days, — the very
architecture, in all its details, of another generation.

Whistler's entrance was on the ground floor, just
across the little court. On a memorable day the
bell was answered by a solemn-faced English ser-
vant, — possibly more than ordinarily solemn-faced,
because that particular morning he was in great dis-
favor, and was subsequently discharged for a cumu-
lation of shortcomings which would have exhausted
the patience of an ordinary man thrice over. But
Whistler — all impressions to the contrary, notwith-
standing — was a man of infinite patience with sitter
and servant, — the work of the latter being consider-
ably lighter than that of the former. Under only
the greatest provocation would he discharge either.

Passing through the door, one went down several
steps into the small hall, and through that into the

This room was a revelation of the personality of
the artist, — simple, dignified, harmonious ; it was
restful and charming to the last degree. The details
were so unobtrusive that it is difficult to recall par-
ticular features. The floor was covered with a
coarse, dark-blue matting ; the panelled walls were
in pure white and blue, while the ceiling was in a
light shade of blue. The room stood firmly on its
feet, unlike so many in even the best of houses,
which have floors so light and walls so dark that
everything is topsy-turvy.


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Color seeks and finds its level ; light floors, with
darker walls and ceilings, reverse the natural order
of things, and compel people to live on their heads.

The few pieces of furniture were of an old pat-
tern, graceful almost to fragility, and covered with
some light stuff which harmonized with the tone of
the walls.

There were but two pictures in the room, one at
each end, both sketches by Whistler, "harmonies"
or "arrangements" in color rather than composi-
tions. The "key" being blue, the pictures blended
with the walls, as all pictures should, as if part of the
original scheme of decoration.

When a visitor, who was fascinated by the color
of these two studies, asked the painter if he would
part with them, he said :

" God bless me, no ! I am going to do some-
thing big some day from those. Pretty, eh?"

His studio was filled with just such " notes" and
"jottings" of schemes in color and composition,
and from each it was his intention to work out
something more important and complete ; but such
was the fertility of his imagination that no man
could hope to carry even a fraction to finished con-

Near the fireplace, at one end of the room, was a
little old-fashioned table covered with writing-ma-
terials, — paper of the smallest size, a dainty ink-
stand, and several quill pens. This was the table

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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 13 of 18)