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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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of controversy, the battlefield of disputation, the
veritable mount of irony, while the ink-well was

221



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

the fountain of exquisite sarcasm, and the quill
pens the scalpels which laid bare the vital recesses
of unlucky opponents.

It was the habit of the painter, in his idle mo-
ments, to sit at this little table, with a small cup of
coffee and a cigarette, and write those barbed and
pointed notes which, like so many banderillas, irri-
tated to frenzy the bulls they were aimed at.

The far side of the room opened into one of
those quaint old gardens so often found tucked away
in the midst of crumbling buildings on the ancient
thoroughfares. Its narrow confines were enlarged to
the eye by winding, gravelled walks and vistas of
flowers and bushes ; the rickety seats, half hidden
by the foliage, invited the loiterer to repose, and the
high wall beyond suggested the gloomy confines of
some convent or deserted monastery.

"A picturesque spot. Once at dusk there came
the tinkle of a far-off bell, as if for vesper prayers ;
the years rolled back, and visions of other days
flitted along the garden paths ; stately dames in rich
brocades, with powder, patch, and high coiffure, and
gallant courtiers with graved and jewelled blades,
whose whispered vows were no more stable than the
sound of rustling leaves."

Here of a Sunday afternoon Mrs. Whistler fre-
quently served tea, and in this garden he made some
of his best lithographs.

At home Whistler was the most delightful of —
guests. The cares of hospitality sat lightly upon
him.

222



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

To the caller who had come at the appointed
hour, and had waited for thirty or forty minutes,
he would apologize so delightfully for the " unpar-
donable delay," that a prince could take no offence,
much less an ordinary visitor, who could profitably
spend the time in studying the harmonious sur-
roundings.

It is difficult to describe the charm of his man-
ner, so different from the notion of it that prevails
generally.

He was far more easy of approach than most
celebrities ; and once within the charmed circle, he
was the most agreeable and companionable of
living men.

He would make the diffident feel instantly at
ease, and he would exert himself to interest even
the stupid visitor, but he would not encourage him
to come again.

His own talk was so bright that it was unneces-
sary for any guest to say much, — a capacity for lis-
tening appreciatively being the best qualification.
Still, he did not monopolize the conversation. He
himself was.one of the keenest listeners that ever
sat at a dinner-table ; nothing escaped him. And
if by chance some one said a good thing, he was the
first to applaud it.

In company it was impossible to draw him into
serious discussion. If the attempt were made, it
usually led to a monologue on his part on some
branch of the topic under discussion, — a monologue
so extravagant, so funny, so irresistible in its humor

223



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

and denunciation that the entire company would
turn and listen with delight.

No one who has ever heard his comparison of the
Englishman who carries his tub and sponge on the
top of the coach to parade his cleanliness with the
French who had vast public baths before England
was discovered can ever forget the inimitable wit
and humor and — underlying truth of it all. Again,
his description of the Gerrnans, — a people that call
a glove a hand-shoe. Well, it is idle to even call to
mind these things ; they will never be heard again,
and no report could do them justice.

A lady, after visiting him, said, " He is like no
other human being ; a creature of moods and epi-
grams, but perfectly delightful. I feel as if I'd been
conversing with a flash of lightning in a brown
velvet coat."

No man could draw him out of malice afore-
thought. It was fatal to say :

"Mr. Whistler, do tell that story of the "

etc.

Of that sort he was no story-teller at all, and if
persistently urged, would close up like a clam ; but,
if left to himself, he would take part in any conversa-
tion that might be started, and would soon take the
lead, not obviously or offensively, but naturally, and
say things that would make the professed wit dumb
with envy. He would say things he had said, or
even printed, before, if the subject warranted it.
He might even go a bit out of his way to drag in a
good thing which he thought would fit ; but for the

224



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

most part his talk was the spontaneous utterance of
the occasion.

He was known to every "chef" and "maitre
d'hotel" in London and Paris, — for, while he ate and
drank most sparingly, he was exceedingly fastidious.

He did not care greatly for the large caravansa-
ries like the " Ritz," where people go to perform in
public astounding gastronomic feats ; but he knew
every place in Paris where a really good dish was to
be had at a moderate price, and every such place
gave him the best it had.

Nearly every sketch, drawing, or portrait of Whist-
ler gives some phase of his many-sided personality,
but not one — not even those by himself — gives any-
thing like an adequate conception.

He was a man most difficult to place on canvas.
He could not be grasped and held long enough.
He himself tried it, but with only moderate success.
Others have tried it and failed completely, — that is,
failed to portray him at his best ; for that matter,
no one who has ever drawn or painted him did so
when he was at his best, for those moments came
only in the seclusion of his own studio, when, alone
with model or sitter, he worked absolutely oblivious
to everything but his art. No man is at his best
when posing for photograph, sketch, or portrait, and
Whistler was farther from being an exception to
this rule than most others. He knew too well what
a portrait should be to feel the indifference which is
essential to a perfectly natural pose. Consequently,
IS 225



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

while few men were better known by sight in Paris
and London, scarce any one knew him as he was, —
the most profoundly serious, conscientious, and con-
sistent artist of his day and generation.

As has been stated, he was always exceedingly
particular about his dress, — as finicky as a woman.
In his early London days he carried a long, slender
wand, like a mahl-stick, for a cane, and was conspic-
uous wherever he went, not only on account of his
diminutive size, but also by his stick and dress.

An attendant at an exhibition once wished to re-
lieve him of his cane, but he exclaimed :

"Oh, no, my man ! I keep this for the critics."

The following, by a London correspondent, is a
very good description, though of late years he had
abandoned the cane and his hair was somewhat
grayer :

"They say Whistler is fifty-six. But years have nothing
to do with him. He is as young in spirit, as hthe in body,
as dapper in ' get-up' as he was twenty years ago.

"Is there another man in London with such vitahty as
Whistler has, — 1 care not what his age, — another so dainty,
another so sprightly in wit ? Do you see that dapper gentle-
man coming along Cheyne Walk, silk hat with very tall crown
and very straight brim ; habit apparently broadcloth (frock
coat), fitting to perfection a supple figure ; feet small as a
girl's, — an American girl's ; hands delicately gloved in yellow;
in the right hand a lithe, slim wand, twice as long as a walk-
ing stick ; glass in eye ; black moustache and slight ' imperial ;'
black hair with wavy threads of gray here and there ? The
dainty gentleman lifts his hat, and you see above his fore-
head the slender, white lock — the white plume as famous as

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

that of Navarre. This is our friend Whistler, the inimitable,
truly called ' the master. ' You may meet him in the early
morning, or at a private view in the afternoon, at an evening
party, two hours bdlfore midnight or two hours after it ; and
you will find him as fresh in spirit, as dainty, as lively, as
witty at one time as at another."

Some one once gave him an American umbrella, —
one of those that when rolled tightly are as small as
walking-sticks. He was delighted with it, and used
it as a cane. One day, coming out of the studio
with a friend, and while hurrying to the cab-stand a
few blocks away, it began to drizzle, and his friend,
who had no umbrella, said :

" Hurry and put up your umbrella or we'll get
our hats wet."

He fumbled a second at the umbrella, then hur-
ried on.

"But I would get my umbrella wet."

It was commonly said Whistler was unapproach-
able. In his studio, when at work, yes ; in his
home, no.

A note of introduction from any approved corre-
spondent would almost invariably bring a favorable
response. But not every correspondent was ap-
proved ; or if so at one time, did not necessarily
remain so indefinitely, and a note from the wrong —
perhaps wronged — source was no commendation at
all. On the whole, a frank application from a stranger
for permission to call was quite as likely as not to
prove successful, such a note in itself being a tribute.

227



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

But at the studio it was very different. He had
no reception-days or hours, as many painters have.
He had no use for the social rabble in his work-
shop.

One warm afternoon, when hard at work, the bell
rang. Brush in hand, he went to the outer door at
the head of the six flights of steep, slippery oak stairs,

and found there Mr. C , whom he knew, — a man

who had little to do but bother others, — and Lady

D , a distinguished and clever woman, both out

of breath from their long climb.

"Ah! my dear Mr. Whistler," drawled C ,

" I have taken the liberty of bringing Lady D

to see you. I knew you would be delighted."

"Delighted ! I'm sure; quite beyond expression;
but," — mysteriously, and holding the door so as to

bar their entrance, — " my dear Lady D , I would

never forgive our friend for bringing you up six
flights of stairs on so hot a day to visit a studio at
one of those — eh — pagan moments when" — and he
glanced furtively behind him and still further closed
the door — " it is absolutely impossible for a lady to
be received. Upon my soul, I should never forgive
him."

And the lady looked daggers at her confused cav-
alier, as Whistler bowed them down the six flights
of oaken stairs and returned to resume work on the
portrait of a very sedate old gentleman, who had
taken advantage of the interruption to break for a
moment the rigor of his pose.

In those days and for many years the Paris studio

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

was at No. 86 Notre Dame des Champs. Whistler
said one day, " Only the French have any taste in
the naming of streets."

The six steep flights of polished oak stairs no
doubt shortened his life by many years. As long
ago as 1894 he was accustomed to take a long rest
on a settee at the head of the third flight, and again
on reaching the top. Later he would have his
luncheon served in the studio to avoid the fatigue
of going down and coming back. He was by no
means an old man, and looked the picture of health,
cheeks ruddy, eye bright ; but he would get out of
breath, and his heart gave him trouble, — startled him
at times with its eccentricities and warnings.

A blunt friend, frightened at seeing him one day
almost collapse on reaching the studio, said :

" I tell you. Whistler, those stairs will be the
death of you ; and I'll be hanged if I am coming
here any more with you, for you'll die on my hands,
and that would get me into a nice mess. Why
don't you have a studio on the ground floor?"

"When I die— I will."

But while casual callers met with scant courtesy
at the studio, he was, as has already been noted,
exceptionally cordial to all who were sincerely in-
terested in his work, and would spend hours and
hours of days that were precious in showing pictures
to people who really could not understand them, —
for that matter, who did understand them? — but
who were honest in their expressions of approval,

229



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

and this, too, with no thought of selling anything he
had ; in fact, nothing chilled the enthusiasm of the
moment so much as the suggestion of a purchase ;
he became immediately a different being, and one by
one his treasures would be turned to the wall.

The studio was a large barn-like room at the very
top of the high building. There was a small entry-
way, which had a glass door opening out upon a
balcony, high up over the street, and another door
which opened into the studio proper.

A huge skylight lighted this great attic, but only
in part, for the room was too big to be well lighted
from any one opening.

The old oak floor was quite dark, and in places
where he worked it was polished by use, for when
entirely absorbed he had the habit of moving back
and forth so quickly as to slide a pace or two.

The tone of the studio was brown, not a deep or
muddy brown, but a brown that seemed tinged with
gray.

The base-board that stretched a narrow line about
the big room was a deeper shade than the wall, and
so nice were the gradations of tone, that floor, base-
board, wall, and raftered ceiling blended together as
one harmonious whole, all of which was the work
of Whistler.

The furniture amounted to nothing : a table near
the far side, where he lunched, an old sofa against
the wall under the skyhght, two or three old French
chairs, his easel and palette. There was a high

230



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

stove near the door, — one of those French compHca-
tions intended for the generation of a maximum of
heat with a minimum consumption of precious coal.
Like most labor-saving devices, it required some
skill for its management, and Whistler was not a
mechanic.

One cold day it was only too apparent the stove
needed encouragement, and the sitter suggested
that the damper be opened, — in fact, started to
open it himself, when Whistler, greatly alarmed,
exclaimed :

" God bless me ! but you must not touch that ; the
last time I meddled with it, the fire went out. There
is only one man in Paris who understands that stove."

"Well, where is he?"

" Dear me, I discharged him to-day. How un-
lucky."

"Then, we must seize the stove by the horns and
take our chances on the consequences." And throw-
ing the damper wide open, there was soon a blazing
fire.

For work outside, Whistler used a very small
palette of the usual form ; in his studio he carried
no palette whatsoever, but used in lieu thereof a
rectangular table that resembled a writing-desk.
The top sloped slightly ; at the left were tubes of
colors, at the right one or two bowls containing oil
and turpentine, with which the colors when mixed
were reduced so thin that they would run on the
sloping top of the table.

231



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

He relied upon innumerable coats of thin color
to secure the desired effect rather than upon one or
two coats of greater consistency. This made the
work long and tedious as compared with the modern
mode of taking the pigments as they squirm from
the tubes and pasting them while yet alive on the
canvas ; but it has undoubtedly given his pictures a
permanency and durability far beyond that of others.

He seldom began to arrange his palette until the
model or sitter was in pose ; and ten or fifteen min-
utes were not infrequently spent in getting palette
and brushes to suit him. To a model paid by the
hour this delay was of no concern, but to the un-
practised sitter, whose limit of endurance and pa-
tience did not exceed an hour, the time spent in
setting the palette seemed unduly long and alto-
gether wasted. But all that was a part of the re-
finement of Whistler's art.

So susceptible was his color-sense that he could
not mix colors to suit him unless canvas and sitter
were before him precisely as they would be when he
began to paint. The arrangement of the colors on
the palette was but preliminary to placing those
same colors on the canvas, therefore the sitter was
as essential to the one process as the other.

Once inside his studio, Whistler seemed to lose
all the eccentricities of manner by which he was
known to the world. He doffed his coat, substi-
tuted for his monocle a pair of servicable spectacles,
and was ready for work.

232



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

If it were a full-length portrait, he placed the can-
vas near his palette and his sitter in pose about
four feet to the other side of the easel. For obser-
vation he stood about twelve feet back towards
the doorway, — very close, in fact, to the refractory
stove. The light fell slanting on the right of the
portrait and sitter, over the painter's left shoulder,
and this light he would modify each day accord-
ing to the amount of sunshine and the effect he
desired.

He then selected two or three small brushes with
handles about three feet in length, stood back about
twelve feet, took a good look at both sitter and
canvas, then stepping quickly forward, and, standing
as far from the canvas as the long handles and his
arms permitted, he began to rapidly sketch in the
figure with long, firm strokes of the brush. The
advantage of long handles was obvious, — they en-
abled him to stand back quite a distance and sketch
directly from his sitter. Except for this first sketch,
he used ordinary brushes with ordinary handles.

There was nothing eccentric or unusual in his
methods or in what he worked with. Probably no
painter in all Paris used simpler means to arrive at
great results. It is quite likely that no other painter
of to-day — judging entirely from appearances of
modern canvases — could achieve any satisfactory
results with materials so elemental.

To make the sketch required possibly thirty min-
utes. To the casual observer there was often more
of a likeness in the first sketch than at any time

233



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

after, — which simply goes to show the power of Hne
devoid of color and also the easy task of the
caricaturist.

The sketch finished, the long-handled brushes
were discarded and work began in earnest. With
one or more, sometimes a handful of brushes, — for
they would accumulate without his realizing it, — he
would again stand back and carefully scrutinize sitter
and canvas until it seemed as if — and no doubt it
was so — he transferred a visual impression of the
subject to the canvas and fixed it there ready to be
made permanent with line and color ; then quickly,
often with a run and a slide, he rushed up to the
canvas and, without glancing at his sitter, vigorously
painted so long as his visual image lasted, then going
back the full distance he took another look, and so
on day after day to the end.

In life-size work he seldom stood close to the
canvas and painted direct from his sitter.

He has laid down the proposition :

' ' The one aim of the unsuspecting painter is to make his
man ' stand out' from the frame, never doubting that, on the
contrary, he should really, and in truth absolutely does,
stand within the frame, and at a depth behind it equal to the
distance at which the painter sees his model. The frame is,
indeed, the window through which the painter looks at his
model, and nothing could be more offensively inartistic than
this brutal attempt to thrust the model on the hitherside of
this window." i



^ Gentle Art, pp. 177, 178.
234



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

The number of sittings required varied greatly,
and did not depend in any degree upon the size of
the canvas. Sometimes he would paint a life-size
figure with great rapidity ; again he would spend
weeks and months on a very small picture. All de-
pending upon conditions over which he had no
control.

He has devoted as many as ninety sittings to a
portrait, only to pronounce it unfinished and unsatis-
factory.

No work counted or was permitted to remain save
that painted in what he called his "grand manner,"
which meant the work of those days and hours when
everything — sitter, light, weather, spirits, mood, en-
thusiasm — was just right, — a combination that might
come several days in succession or but once in a
fortnight.

He once said, "The portrait of my mother was
painted in a few hours," meaning that the work of
the last few hours was the work that really counted.

It was interesting to watch a picture grow under
the hands of Whistler. With most painters some-
thing is finished from day to day, and in the course
of ten or twelve sittings the portrait is complete.
Not so with him. Nothing, not a detail, not even an
infinitesimal section of the background was finished
until the last.

He worked with great rapidity and long hours,
but he used his colors thin and covered the canvas
with innumerable coats of paint. The colors in-
creased in depth and intensity as the work pro-

235



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

gressed. At first the entire figure was painted in
grayish-brown tones, with very httle of flesh color,
the whole blending perfectly with the grayish-brown
of the prepared canvas ; then the entire background
would be intensified a little ; then the figure made
a little stronger ; then the background, and so on
from day to day and week to week, and often from
month to month, to the exhaustion of the sitter, but
the perfection of the work, if the sitter remained
patient and continued in favor.

At no time did he permit the figure to get away
from or out of the background ; at no time did he
permit the background to oppress the figure, but
the development of both was even and harmonious,
with neither discord nor undue contrast.

And so the portrait would really grow, really
develop as an entirety, very much as a negative
under the action of the chemicals comes out gradu-
ally — lights, shadows, and all from the first faint
indications to their full values.

It was as if the portrait were hidden within the
canvas and the master by passing his wands day
after day over the surface evoked the image.

Most painters can take a canvas and begin at
once with the colors of the finished picture, making
each stroke count from the veiy first, often, if the
canvas has been prepared, doing little or nothing to
the background. Whistler himself would some-
times let the prepared canvas show, all the resources
of his art he understood, but if he did, the picture
was simply a sketch.

236



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

In a very profound sense Whistler's work from
the very beginning was always finished, — finished
in the sense that any growing thing is perfect from
day to day. The plant may be but a tender shoot
just appearing above the ground, or it may be in
full leaf, or in gorgeous blossom, but it is finished,
it is perfect by day and night. In that sense were
Whistler's paintings finished. If they were sketches,
then the slight amount of color used was precisely
the amount the sketch required. At no time was
the sense of proportion outraged by carrying line
or color or likeness beyond the symmetrical develop-
ment of the three.

One must not be understood as saying that all
his pictures are of equal merit, — perfection does not
necessarily mean that ; nor that he did not do many
things he considered failures.

Few painters ever destroyed more work, no
painter was ever more critical of his own work.
But, in spite of all he could do, things would get out
into the world that he wished destroyed. This was
due in part to the facility with which he made
sketches and the enthusiasm with which he would
begin new things, many of which never got on.
Now and then some of these unfinished things —
unfinished from the first stroke, because never quite
satisfactory to him — would escape his studio.

Artists express very positive opinions regarding
the merits of his pictures, placing some with the
best the world has done, others as quite unworthy

^27



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

the master. As no two painters agree which are
the best and which are the least worthy, the layman
is helpless. In truth, only Whistler himself could
have pointed out all the qualities and defects, and
this he never did. If pressed for an opinion or a
preference, he would evade the question, or by deftly
speaking of this or that quality of the works under
discussion would leave his hearers with the im-
pression they knew all about the matter, when in
reality they were no wiser than before. He simply
did not care to discuss his work intimately with


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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 14 of 18)