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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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the lay or the professional mind. What he saw
was beyond their comprehension, or if not beyond
their comprehension, then they saw it without fur-
ther words from him, for did not the picture speak
plainly for itself?

Contrary to general impression, he was patience
itself in his studio. A sitter who was with him
every day for nearly six weeks never heard him
utter an impatient word ; on the contrary, he was
all kindness. He would permit his sitter to bring
friends to the studio, and he would listen to all the
foolish suggestions that could occur to a tired and
impatient man.

Sometimes he would rebuke a too-insistent sitter,
as the following anecdotes show, if true :

It is said that one man annoyed him by saying at
the end of each sitting :

"How about that ear, Mr. Whistler? Don't
forget to finish that !"

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

At the last sitting, everything being done except
this ear, Whistler said :

"Well, I think I am through. Now I'll sign it."
Which he did in a very solemn, important manner,
as was his way.

"But my ear, Mr. Whistler! You aren't going
to leave it that way?"

"Oh, you can put it in after you get home."

He was once painting the portrait of a distin-
guished novelist, who, though extremely clever, was
not blessed with the fatal gift of beauty. When
the portrait was finished, the sitter did not seem
satisfied with it.

"Don't you like it?" inquired Whistler.

"No ; can't say I do. But," in self justification,
"you must admit that it is a bad work of art."

"Yes," Whistler replied ; "but I think you must
admit that you are a bad work of nature."

The truth is, he would listen to every suggestion
made by the sitter, model, or even casual visitor, if
one were admitted.

A sitter once said to him :

" Mr. Whistler, isn't there something wrong about
the right eye?"

Instantly alert, he said :

"What's that you say? Um — um — righteye "

And he carefully examined the canvas. "We'll have
a look at that. Suppose you stand for just a moment
— ^just a moment." And he paid as much heed as
if the criticism had come from competent sources.

Mrs. Whistler would now and then come to the

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RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

studio, and he would eagerly ask her opinion of the
progress made ; and her suggestions were always
followed. For her ability as an artist — for her own
pleasure, rather than for profit — and as a critic of
his work he had the highest opinion. Her sug-
gestions were ever to the point, and under her in-
fluence a work always made rapid headway. It was
an irreparable loss when she died in 1897, and he
was never again quite so light-hearted. For a long
time he kept the apartments at 1 10 Rue du Bac, but
did not live there.

His will expressed his devotion to her memory
and belief in her art, —

"I bequeath my wife's entire collection of garnets rare
and beautiful, together with sprays, pendants, etc., of the
same style of work or setting in white stones, brilliants, or
old paste, our entire collection of beautiful old silver and
plate, and the complete collection of old china, to the Louvre.
This bequest is on condition that the three collections be
gathered together in one and displayed as the ' Beatrix
Whistler Collection.' Also that in it or appropriately in the
same room shall be hung proofs of my wife's exquisite etch-
ings, of which I leave a list attached to my will signed
by me."

By a codicil dated May 7, 1903, he revoked the
bequest to the Louvre, but he expressed a desire
that, in the event of his residuary legatee retain-
ing the collection of garnets during her life, she
would bequeath them to the Louvre upon her death.

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

He was unsparing of his sitters only in this one
respect, — he would become so absorbed in his work
as to completely forget them, and they would col-
lapse with fatigue. Sometimes he would notice by
their pallor the faintness which was overcoming
them, and instantly, all solicitude, he would have
them rest, or go out on the balcony for fresh air ;
but he himself never sat down. While they were
resting he would walk back and forth, looking at the
canvas, but rarely touching it, and talking to him-
self, — now and then, but not often, taking the sitter
into his confidence. The moment the sitter was
rested he would begin working again like one pos-
sessed.

By close observation it could be seen that the
best work was usually done during the first long
pose, or in the last hour of the afternoon, when the
shadows were deepening ; and the wise sitter would
humor this trait and pose his longest and best in
those two hours.

To the unaccustomed a half-hour standing — with-
out moving so much as to disturb a line of the gar-
ments — is a long pose. But with practice — and with
Whistler one had practice — an hour and a half with-
out moving a muscle is not impossible.

Every portrait Whistler ever began he expected
to make his masterpiece. That is the way he started
in with any work. It was to be the best thing he
ever did ; and so long as the enthusiasm lasted he
would walk up and down the studio talking half to
himself half to his sitter :
'^ 241



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

" We will just go right on as we have begun, and
it will be fine, — perhaps the finest thing I have ever
done."

"Not as good as the portrait of your mother?"
— the inevitable question.

" Perhaps ; who knows ? Possibly finer in a way ;
for this, you know, is different. We'll make a big
thing of it." And so on for days and weeks, until
something would occur, — possibly weariness on the
part of the sitter ; possibly failure to keep appoint-
ments on days when the painter felt like doing his
best ; possibly too great anxiety to see the picture
finished, — and the painter's enthusiasm would sub-
side, and the portrait would turn out not so great
after all.

After the first few days he would place the canvas
in its frame, and thereafter paint with it so. And
his frames were designed by himself All who have
seen his pictures know them, — just simple, dignified
lines, with no contortions of wood and gilt.

When a sitter was of congenial spirit and com-
placent mood they would lunch in the studio, and
he would paint all day, from eleven in the morning
until — well, until it was so dark that all was dim
and shadowy and ghostly ; and then together both
would take their leave, always turning at the door
for a last look at the canvas looming mysterious in
the darkness ; then grope their way down the wind-
ing oaken stairs, later to dine together at some un-
frequented place where the proprietor watched the

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

fire himself and had stored away in musty depths a
few — just a few — relics of memorable vintages.

" O my friends, when I am sped, appoint a meeting ; and
when ye have met together, be ye glad thereof ; and when
the cup-bearer holds in her hand a flagon of old wine, then
think of old Khayyam and drink to his memory."

In a glass of ruby Margaux of the vintage of
'58, the last of its dusty bin, I drink to the memory
of those glorious days when the vacant canvas as-
sumed the hues of life and grew beneath the touch ;
and those fragrant nights when, with stately cere-
mony, the cob-webbed bottle came forth from its
bed of long repose to subdue fatigue, banish all
care, and leave but the thought of the beautiful. —
Behold, far soul, the empty glass !



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RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS



IX



Portrait -Painting — How he Differed from his
Great Predecessors — The '^Likeness" — Compo-
sition of Color — No Commercial Side — Baronet
vs. Butterfly.

Whistler was not a "portrait-painter," as the
phrase goes nowadays ; but he was, in certain re-
spects, the greatest painter of portraits the world
has known.

As a " portrait-painter" he fell far short of Rem-
brandt, Velasquez, and a host of lesser men ; but
as a painter of portraits he rose superior to them
all in certain refinements of the art.

There is a vast difference between the " portrait-
painter" to whom the sitter is of first importance
and the painter to whom his art is of first impor-
tance. The difference lies in the attitude of the
artist towards his canvas, towards the work he is
about to undertake. Is the inspiration wholly his
own, or is he influenced by considerations quite
foreign to the production of a pure work of art?

The attitude of the "portrait-painter" may be
likened unto that of the "poet laureate," whose
verse is at the command of conditions he does not

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

control ; who may, by accident, write a good thing, — ■
but the rule is otherwise, with even the best.

To rightly place a human being on canvas, or in
stone, or in marble, or in poetry, is the noblest
achievement of art. On the technical side it ex-
hausts the resources of the art ; on the spiritual side
it exhausts the genius of the artist. But " portrait-
painting" as a profession, as an industrial and a
commercial proposition, is a degradation of art. It
is in strict accord with the spirit of the age ; it is a
natural and an inevitable evolution. But it is, never-
theless, a degradation, — for wherein does the shop-
like atelier of the professional "portrait-painter"
differ from the emporium and the bazaar of com-
merce ? And wherein do the methods of the shrewd
and successful painter differ from those of the suc-
cessful merchant ? Are not the doors of the studio
open to every comer with a purse? Are not the
prices fixed at so much per square yard of canvas ?
Is not the patronage of celebrities sought, regardless
of artistic possibilities, for the prestige it gives?
Are not the A. R. A. and the R. A., and all the
degrees and decorations, sought, like the " By spe-
cial appointment to H. M. — " of the tradesman, for
the money there is in them ?

But what need to enumerate the motives that
move the professional "portrait-painter," — they are
written on his every canvas.

Sculpture still clings to its ideals, and the " bust-
maker" is a term of reproach. No sculptor with

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RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

any ambition whatsoever, with any love for his art,
would willingly look forward to a career of portrait
bust-making. Dire necessity may compel him, and
year after year he may make the marble and bronze
effigies of local celebrities ; but the yoke galls, the
task wearies, and he looks forward to the time when,
emancipated from his thraldom, he may do some-
thing of his own.

Not so the "portrait-painter." He glories in his
degradation ; paints a score of huge, staring can-
vases, blatant likenesses of blatant people, and, be-
fore the paint is dry, parades them in exhibition as his
latest galaxy of masterpieces, — not that his art may
be magnified, but that his trade may be advertised.

The sculptor is only too glad if his bronze effi-
gies are hidden in leafy thickets, in parks, and
out-of-the-way places. He has not learned the com-
mercial value of exhibitions. He does not every
few months place on view a lot of marbles and
bronzes, the work of as many weeks. He has not
caught from the shop-keeper the trick of display-
ing his wares in a window. But the "portrait-
painter" !

"Portrait-painting" pays, — that is the worst of it
all. It is the one branch of the art of painting that
can be followed as methodically as the making of
clothes. It is, for that matter, closely allied to and
quite dependent upon the tailor and the dressmaker.
Worth has made more portraits than any one painter
in Paris.

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

The " portrait-painter" must dress his manikin in
clothes that will " paint," for the manikin is worse
than nothing for the picture. There must be a
gown of brilliant stuffs, and either a hat or the
hair-dresser, — who also has made and unmade
portraits, — or there must be a uniform, hunting-
breeches, judge's gown and wig, accordingly as the
manikin is woman or man ; and it is the theatrical
trappings that are painted, and, incidentally thereto,
— manikin.

Reynolds painted something like two thousand
canvases. In 1758 one hundred and fifty persons
sat to him, — an average of three portraits a week.
He was as methodical as an automatic machine.
Rose early, breakfasted at nine, was in the studio at
ten, worked by himself until eleven, when his first
sitter of the day would appear, to be succeeded by
another precisely one "hour later, and so on, a sitter
an hour, until four o'clock, when the popular painter
made himself ready for a plunge in the social swirl.

Portraits produced under such conditions cannot
be made more than technically brilliant, — superficial
likenesses of the great majority of the sitters, — and
are unworthy the painter's art.

After a brief study of their careers, and without
seeing a portrait by either, one would be warranted
in looking for a masterpiece among Gainsborough's
two hundred and twenty portraits rather than among
the two thousand canvases of Reynolds.

Great facility of execution is not necessarily a

247



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

condemnatory feature of a man's art, but it is a
dangerous feature, and with most men it is a fatal
feature.

The hand of the master must be entirely subser-
vient to the brain. No obstacle should intervene
between the inspiration and its complete expression,
but the hand must not force the imagination ; and
it is true that command of technic — mere digital
dexterity — does lead the performer, whether painter
or musician, to speak when he has nothing to say.

Happily for the reputation of Reynolds, he painted
now and then a portrait in which he took more
interest, and these have some — possibly not many
— of the qualities that live. For the most part his
reputation rests on mere volume of brilliant and
high-grade work, — very much as one factory has a
greater reputation than another. And he did more
than any man who ever lived to reduce " portrait-
painting" to a trade, a mechanical pursuit.

In the modern sense of the phrase, he was one
of the greatest of "portrait-painters ;'* certainly the
most "successful" — again in the modern sense —
the world has known, of talent supreme, in genius
wanting.

But there are portraits and portraits, — to illus-
trate :

There are portraits.

There are portraits that are also pictures.
There are pictures that are also portraits.
There are pictures.

248



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

The first-named are mere likenesses, — photo-
graphs on canvas. This sort is very common and
very popular ; they are made with great faciHty
by the professional "portrait-painters" and they are
greatly applauded wherever seen. They have their
fixed prices, — so much for half, three-quarters, or
full-length, — and they are quite a matter of com-
merce, with a maximum of dexterity and a minimum
of art. There are those who can and do paint great
portraits, who turn out endless numbers of these
mechanically-made things to the detriment of their
art. Of the best of this sort were the most of
Reynolds's portraits, — superficially brilliant and at-
tractive likenesses that ought not to be seen outside
the family circle for which they were intended. Of
this same sort are most of those startling people who
issue from the studios of the popular "portrait-
painters" of to-day, to thrust the nonentity of their
individualities upon us. The identity of the "Blue-
Boy," by Gainesborough, is quite immaterial ; the
identity of the "Shrimp-Girl," by Hogarth, is like-
wise immaterial ; the identity of the " Child with a
Sword," by Manet, is of no importance, — for these
are pictures, though at the same time portraits.

But the identity of the " portraits" by the popu-
lar "portrait-painter" is, in ninety-nine instances
out of a hundred, a matter of great importance, the
value of the canvas being enhanced by the celebrity
or notoriety of the sitter.

The mere portrait is better than no portrait at
all, but it should be a fixture in its own household, a

249



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

family heirloom, and strictly entailed ; descendants
failing, then to the midden.

Between the mere portrait and the portrait that
possesses some of the universal qualities of a work
of art the interval is wide, and almost one of kind
rather than degree, though no line of strict demar-
cation can be drawn ; while, as between the paint-
ing that is primarily a portrait, with incidental uni-
versal qualities, and a painting that is primarily a
work of art, and incidentally a portrait, the difference
is entirely a matter of degree.

In, for instance, the "Blue-Boy" the portrait ele-
ment predominates; in the "Shrimp-Girl" the uni-
versal element predominates. In the former, the
portrait was uppermost in the painter's mind ; in
the other, the picture was the only consideration.
And yet Hogarth's is undoubtedly the more perfect
portrait, though slight and sketchy as compared with
the composition and finish of the Gainsborough.

In fact, the "Shrimp-Girl," as an abstract work
of art, is a degree higher than the picture-portrait.
It is a picture, — a work of art in the doing of which
no considerations other than the artistic intention
moved the painter.

A mere portrait, in the dash and brilliancy of its
execution or the decorative quality of its color, may
be better than a picture of indifferent execution or
poor color ; the one may be worth keeping in a
limited circle, or even of some use decoratively in a
more general way, while the other is not worth pre-
serving at all. But there is hope for the man who

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

attempts to paint a picture, to produce a work of
art, though he fails miserably ; whereas there is no
hope for the brilliant technician whose sole ambition
is to paint and sell his canvas photographs as rap-
idly as possible.

Manet's "Child with a Sword" is a superb por-
trait of a child, — a model, to be sure, but none the
less a little human being, with as many attributes of
life and humanity as the child whose parents pay
the price of a likeness. Manet's chief merit lies in
the fact that all his life long he tried to paint pictures,
sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully ;
never with any profound insight into human nature
or life, but always straightforwardly and sincerely,
and with a strong, firm hand. He painted many
portraits of his sister and his friends, but invariably
with the intention to do something of more universal
validity than a likeness.

The casual visitor to the Louvre may examine at
his leisure the little " Infanta" and the " Mona Lisa,"
both great pictures, both great portraits, but of the
two the portrait element is rather more pronounced
in the Velasquez than in the Leonardo.

The little " Infanta" is there for all time on the
canvas, precisely as she was in the painter's studio,
a wonderful portrait of a child, a wonderful picture
of a bit of humanity, but less of a type than an in-
dividual.

As for the "Mona Lisa," who can doubt that in
the long years the painter worked on this portrait
all superficial resemblances and characteristics dis-

251



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

appeared until the constant, the elemental, the soul
alone remained ? It possesses many of the qualities
of the idealized madonnas of Italian religious art.
It began with the painter's admiration of a beautiful
woman, an individual of that day and generation ; it
ended with an ideal which will last so long as the
slowly-darkening pigments retain line and linea-
ments.

The mere adding of accessories in the way of
composition or background or the adoption of a
classic or theatrical pose may make the work more
decorative, but it does not enhance the real merit
of the portrait, the status of which cannot be altered
by the surrounding canvas.

When Mrs. Siddons entered Reynolds's studio, he
said, as he conducted her to the raised platform :

" Take your seat upon the throne for which you
were born, and suggest to me the idea of the ' Tragic
Muse.'"

"I made a few steps," relates the actress, "and
then took at once the attitude in which the 'Tragic
Muse' has remained."

When the portrait was finished. Sir Joshua said :

" I cannot lose this opportunity of sending my
name to posterity on the hem of your garment," and
he placed his signature on the border of the gown.

All of which are the conditions under which the-
atrical and meritricious art is produced. The por-
trait of a woman posing as the "Tragic Muse" may
turn out well, but the chances are otherwise.

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

There are "portrait-painters" who are better than
others, and the best of all were Rembrandt and
Velasquez, the latter the greatest portrait-painter
who ever lived, — so great that his portraits are great
as pictures ; but not quite in the abstract sense that
a painting by Raphael is a picture, — a bright and
beautiful song in line and color ; not quite in the
sense that a painting by Angelo is a picture, — the
tumultuous outpouring of a human soul ; not quite
in the subtle sense that a painting by Whistler is a
picture, — a harmony to delight the eye as music
delights the ear.

Rembrandt and Velasquez were great in technical
directions in their portraiture, and their achieve-
ments remain unchallenged ; but in the painting of
portraits each was something of the " portrait-
painter," — not the facile, commercial painter of to-
day, but they painted portraits to earn their living.
Now and then the portrait was a labor of love and
a great picture, seldom — at least in the case of
Velasquez — a matter of drudgery, and therefore a
failure.

Velasquez was so happily situated in the court at
Madrid, of the king's household, on friendly terms
with the royal family, that he painted their portraits
with far more devotion and interest than he could
possibly feel towards a stranger.

A portrait of Philip the Fourth by Velasquez
ought to be as good a work of art as a bust of
Pericles by Phidias, — and that is about the most
that can be said in portraiture, — but a bust of

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RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

Pericles would not be the best that the art of
Phidias could do, for his art was not limited by-
lineaments.

Wherein the art of Whistler differed from the art
of Rembrandt and Velasquez in the painting of
human likenesses is as follows :

With Whistler the sitter, whether model or patron,
was subordinated to the composition, to the har-
mony of line and color, — was simply an integral part
of the larger scheme in the painter's mind.

With Rembrandt and Velasquez the sitter was
the important feature, everything else being quite
casual ; the object in mind being to paint a great
portrait, to put a human being on canvas. A worthy
object when worthily done, but not quite so pure
and subtle and abstract, not quite so free from limi-
tations of time and place and person as the intention
to do something of universal validity in which the
individual shall not obtrude beyond his due measure
of importance.

In the attempt to do things that had never been
done before, in the attempt to make painting as pure
an art as music and poetry, Whistler possibly made
many failures, or rather many more or less incom-
plete successes, but in his best things it is undeniably
true that he produced pictures wherein the portrait
element was as subtly if not as " strongly" developed
as in anything ever before painted, and wherein at
the same time that element was successfully sub-
ordinated to ideals more refined and universal.

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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Both Rembrandt and Velasquez did "stronger"
things than Whistler, — that is to say, they placed
their subjects more positively and forcefully on the
canvas, so that they stand out more aggressively, and
fill not only their frames but the room ; they do
not obtrude, but they are great big characterizations
which make themselves felt in any company.

Whistler's portraits, like all his pictures, retire
within their frames, do not assert themselves, are not
"strong," as the term is quite legitimately used in
the sense of powerful, positive, and vigorous. His
portraits are neither "stunning" nor overwhelming;
they are so quiet, restful, and harmonious as to
almost escape notice. There is a wraith-like qual-
ity about some of them that has often been noted ;
some of them seem the portraits of shadows rather
than realities.

A woman standing before "The Fur Jacket" said :


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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 15 of 18)