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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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" So that is a portrait of a woman by Whistler?"
" No," replied her companion ; " it is Whistler's
impression of a woman."

Neither was right, — for, as a matter of fact, it is
simply a composition of line and color wherein a
woman — in this case a model — is the central figure
of the arrangement. The painting of a likeness
was not in Whistler's mind at all. The painting of
a woman, either as a type or an individual, probably
did not enter his head ; but he had in mind a scheme
which pleased him, and this scheme he placed on
canvas. It is quite hkely the woman happened to
enter his studio, and the effect of figure, costume,



and environment caught his fancy. That was the
way many of the portraits were begun.

Lady Archibald Campbell was nothing to him
except a possibility ; she was to him as a theme, as
a motive to a musician. At the outset he had all
sorts of trouble with the picture ; and it was not
until one day Lady Campbell happened to come in
with her fur cape over her shoulders that he made
a new start and painted the picture. It is a great
portrait, one of his very best, a haunting likeness of a
woman ; not such a photographic likeness as friends
and relatives demand, but just the likeness that
posterity demands : a woman, a type, with all the
charm, all the refinement, all the real, the true, the
elusive qualities of a woman, — in short, those quali-
ties of mind and body which reappear in descend-
ants of the third and fourth generation and demon-
strate the faithfulness of the portrait.

There is no portrait by Rembrandt or Velasquez
which at all resembles Whistler's portrait of his

It is not at all like anything by Rembrandt ;
there is a hint of the blacks and grays of Velasquez,
but that is a superficial observation made by every
passing tourist.

In scheme, composition, intention, and execution
the picture is essentially different from anything the
great Spanish painter ever did. One ought to
recognize the fundamental difference between the
two artists on looking at the little "Infanta" in the


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Louvre, — there is no need to go farther. Velasquez
had a firm strong grasp of hfe about him which
Whistler lacked. The one was a man among men,
the other a poet among poets, a musician among
musicians, a dreamer among dreamers ; the one
painted men, women, and children because they
interested him, the other painted them because he
was interested in beautiful things ; the one viewed
the world by day with his feet planted firmly on the
ground, the other viewed it by dusk and by night
with his head in the mist and clouds.

There was the same difference between Velasquez
and Whistler that there is between two poets, one
of whom — like, say, Byron — deals with life with a
sure hand, the other — like Keats — deals with beauty
as the finest thing in life.

In poetry even the casual reader does not con-
found men of opposite temperaments, though both
use the medium of verse to express their thoughts ;
but in painting, people habitually confuse men who
have absolutely nothing in common except the me-
dium they use. And yet for every poet there is
somewhere a painter of like moods and temper-
ament. Men do not differ, though some use poetry,
some music, some sculpture, some painting to ex-
press their fancies and convictions.

Were one so disposed, it would not be difficult to
point out the Browning, the Tennyson, the Whitman,
the Bach, the Beethoven, the Wagner of painting,
for the human soul is the same in every art.

'7 257


Beyond the fact, therefore, that Velasquez and
Whistler both expressed themselves by means of
painting, they were not at all alike, and their work
must reflect their fundamental differences.

Whistler, in susceptibility to color and fleeting
line, in love for abstract, almost ethereal beauty,
was akin to the choice spirits of the far East. He
found more that appealed to him and affected him
in the blue-and-white porcelain of China than in
any painting from Madrid. Velasquez might give
him many valuable hints as to the use of color, as
to the practice of his art, but no suggestions what-
soever as to ends and aims. These motives he
found in the East, in those wonderful lands where
men, leaving nature far behind, almost touched
heaven in their philosophies, and did seize some of
heaven's infinite blues and silvery grays in their arts.

It is idle to compare Whistler's portraits with
those of any other man, for the qualities that make
those of others great are not found accentuated in
his, and the qualities that make his great are not
found refined in those of others.

The matter of likeness, which troubles most peo-
ple, is of vital importance to the "portrait-painter,"
since it is his sole excuse, the only justification he
has for existing, but to art it does not matter at

Likeness has no objective existence. It is en-
tirely a matter of impression, a subjective realiza-


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

tion. Beyond the size of the mouth, the shape of
the nose, the color of the eyes there is httle to
what is called a "likeness." A person never looks
the same to different people or on different occa-

To the casual acquaintance a "likeness" is but
skin deep ; to the friend of a lifetime it is alto-
gether a matter of character. A portrait that
satisfies a wife fails to please a mother, and one that
provokes the applause of the passing throng is a
disappointment to the family.

For what is one man's appearance to another but
the impact of personality upon personality, the
coming together of two vitalities clothed in flesh
and blood. But some there are who see only the
clothes of another, — the very outward shell and
husk ; others who see only the flesh and blood, —
the physical covering ; others who get at the man
and know him in part as he is. For whom shall the
portrait be painted, — for those who see, or those
who know, or those who love? And by whom
shall the portrait be painted, — by the tailor-painter
or by the soul-painter?

The world is filled with painters of the super-
ficial, with painters of husks ; and those are the
painters who impress the multitude, for they see
what the multitude see, and there is no mystery to
puzzle, but everything is superficial and plain.

A likeness is the physical semblance of the soul ;
and the only likeness worth having on canvas or in



marble or in words is the faithful transcript of the
impression the sitter makes on the artist.

From the fact that this impression changes and
deepens from hour to hour, and day to day, and
week to week, as the two beings come to know each
other, it follows that the best portrait can only be
painted after sufficient acquaintance for the dissipa-
tion of those superficial traits and characteristics
which envelop everyone like a fog.

It is the special province of caricature to seize
upon a man's superficialities and peculiarities, and
make the most or the worst of them ; but it is the
business of portraiture to get beneath and give a
glimpse, an impression of the true man.

To this end Whistler's many and long sittings
were of inestimable service. The portrait grew
with his acqaintance with his sitter. What first
pleased him as a scheme of color and an agreeable
personality came in time to interest him as a human
being, with the result in the most successful can-
vases that the picture would be all he desired as a
harmony, as a song without sound, and also a mar-
vellously subtle realization of his impression of the
human being he had learned to know.

In one respect the identity of a portrait is not a
matter of entire indifference, for the attitude of the
painter is more or less affected by his relation to the
sitter, and whatever affects him affects his work.

Many an artist does his best when his wife or
child or some one he loves is the model ; and the


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

man who could not paint his mother a little better,
a little more sympathetically than a stranger would
be soulless indeed. In poetry the influence of a
mistress is a matter of tradition.

The picture, as a work of art, must be judged in-
dependently of its associations. It stands by itself,
and is good, bad, or indifferent, regardless of the
painter or the conditions under which it was done ;
but some of its excellencies may be explained if we
learn it was a labor of love.

It would not add a feather's weight to the superb
quantities of the " Hermes," at Olympia, if it were
discovered to be a likeness of the sculptor's son ;
nor would it detract in the slightest degree from its
perfection if it were found to have been the work
of an unknown man, and not by Praxiteles, —
though in the latter case there would be a great
abatement of enthusiasm on the part of the touring
public. But if a number of the master's works
were in existence, and it was perceived that the
"Hermes" possessed certain qualities of tenderness,
certain indefinable elements of superiorit>^ that
made it the masterpiece, the knowledge that some
one whom the sculptor loved dearly had posed
would help to explain the almost imperceptible dif-
ferences. The work would stand on its own merits ;
but one of the reasons why it stood so high would
be found in the relationship between sculptor and

By many who should be qualified to speak Whist-
ler's portrait of his mother is considered his master-



piece, possibly by some because it is of his mother,
but by others quite independently of the relation-

Others there are who consider the portrait of
Carlyle his masterpiece, possibly because it is of
Carlyle, but by some independently of the identity
of the sitter.

Seldom is the portrait of any unknown or less
known sitter mentioned in comparison, — all of which
goes to show the bias which results from knowing
the identity.

Every Scotchman would insist upon the Carlyle,
most of them quite unconscious of the patriotic

There are pictures far more subtle in color, more
" Whistlerian" in effect, more distinctively the crea-
tions of a great poet in color than these two por-
traits, but as compared with any two, or even three,
or, possibly, foicr others, the preservation of these
are of vital importance to the fame of the artist and
the advancement of art. In this sense they may be
considered his masterpieces, and of the two the one
that hangs in the Luxembourg is far the finer. It
is one of the few pictures that leave nothing to be
said by painter or layman.

It is more than a portrait, — it is a large composi-
tion of line and form and color ; it is a great portrait
made subordinate to a great picture.

Whistler was seldom so satisfied with a portrait
that he was willing to part with it. He could always


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

see things he wished to change, — partly, no doubt,
because his impression of his subject changed from
day to day, — and he would often keep a portrait by
him for months and years before exhibiting. In
fact he exhibited a like reserve about nearly all his
work. It was next to impossible to get anything
from him for current exhibitions.

He would faithfully and with the best of intentions
promise to have something ready. The time would
come, and he would be found still at work on the
canvas as leisurely as if so many centuries were
before him instead of so many hours. Nothing
ever induced him to either hasten his work or ex-
hibit it unfinished. The fact that he might not
be represented gave him not the slightest uneasi-
ness. The result was that the Whistlers seen were
generally old Whistlers, — all the better for that.
For instance, of the pictures exhibited at the World's
Columbian Exposition, not one had been painted
within ten or fifteen years, — two dated as far back
as 1864.

At the Antwerp Exhibition, a year later, there was
certainly not a picture painted within ten years. By
this method the artist had the advantage of his own
mature judgment and the assistance of time, — and
time wields a great brush. There is no glaze,
no finish, no varnish equal to that dispensed so
evenly, so mellowly, so softly, so beautifully by time.
Furthermore, there is no judgment so sound, no
criticism so penetrating as the judgment and criti-
cism of the artist himself on his own work after the



enthusiasm of the hour has worn off! One of the
finest indications of Whistler's greatness was this
reserve in the exhibition of new work, this abihty to
do fine things and quietly put them away out of
sight, until with lapse of time they could be looked
over dispassionately, repainted if necessary, and
either banished forever or exhibited in all their

Most artists delight in seeing exhibited imme-
diately — often prematurely — the things they do,
and the delight is not unnatural. Others there are
who, on account of numerous disappointments or
from queer crotchets, are opposed altogether to ex-
hibitions. Whistler was not of the latter class ; he
was quite human enough to enjoy, as he himself
said, the honors which come from well-conducted
exhibitions. He was an officer of the Legion of
Honor, had received awards and honors without
number, including the extraordinary award of the
gold medal for etching and also for painting at the
Paris Exposition of 1900, and an honorary degree
from a Scotch University. These honors sat lightly,
but by no means uneasily, upon him.

His unwillingness to part with work led to no end
of trouble and misunderstanding. People could
not understand why they should not have what they
had bargained and often paid for, why there should
be any delay whatsoever, much less why after many
demands their money should be returned and the
picture kept by the artist.


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

All this is, of course, diametrically opposed to the
rules of commerce, and Whistler has been blamed
for his unreliability, to use the mildest term urged
against him.

Without knowing him it is impossible to under-
stand his attitude towards his pictures.

In the first place, he was profoundly attached to
them, whether sold or not. They were and re-
mained his work ; and in a humorous way he fre-
quently insisted upon this superior right of the
creator, — as on the fly-leaf of the catalogue of his
London exhibition, which read :

'• Noclurnes, Marines, and Chevalet Pieces: a catalogue.
Small collection kindly lent their owners.

And sometimes this assertion of a superior equity
went so far as to interfere with the right of posses-
sion, which was quite beyond the comprehension of
the multitude.

The story is told that a certain Lady B pur-
chased one of his pictures, but was never able to
get it.

One day she drove to the studio in her victoria.
Mr. Whistler went out to the sidewalk to greet her.

"Mr. Whistler," she said, "two years ago I bought one
of your pictures, a beautiful thing, and I have never been
able to hang it on my walls. It has been loaned to one
exhibition after another. Now, to-day I have my carriage
with me, and I would like to take it home with me. I am
told it is in your possession."

"Dear lady," returned Whistler, " you ask the impossi-



ble. I will send it to you at the earliest practicable moment.
You know, — those last slight touches,— which achieve per-
fection, — make all things beautiful." And so forth and so
forth, to the same effect, and the lady drove off without her

After she had departed, Whistler commenced to poke
around the studio, and, to the great astonishment of a friend
who had been an involuntary listener to the above conversa-
tion, he brought forth a canvas.

" Here it is," he said. "She was right about one thing,
it is beautiful." And it was beautiful.

"But the impudence of these people," he continued,
"who think that because they pay a few paltry hundred
pounds they own my pictures. Why, it merely secures them
the privilege of having them in their houses now and then !
The pictures are mine !' '

However, this side of Whistler is on record in
the case of "The Baronet vs. The Butterfly," as he
called the suit of Sir William Eden to obtain pos-
session of the portrait of Lady Eden.

As the circumstances of this famous case illustrate
Whistler's attitude towards his work, and at the
same time his attitude towards those who tried to
deal commercially with him, they are worth recall-
ing :

In June, 1893, Sir William Eden, a wealthy
English baronet, wrote a letter to Goupil & Co., in
London, asking what Mr. Whisder's price would be
for a small picture of Lady Eden, and he was in-
formed that the price would be about five hundred
guineas. He replied, stating that he thought the
price too high, and said that he would call and see


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Mr. Whistler in Paris. Instead of so doing, he
applied to a common friend, who wrote Whistler
saying that the portrait " is for a friend of mine, on
the one hand, and, on the other hand, you will have
to paint a very lovely and very elegant woman,
whose portrait you will be delighted to undertake,"
and " under the circumstances I think you might
make very liberal concessions."

The matter of price was always a matter of indif-
ference to Whistler, — if also of indifference to the
other party, — and when Sir William wrote concern-
ing the price, Whistler replied very cordially in
January, 1894, as follows :

"Dear Sir William Eden : Your letter has only just
been handed to me, but this may still, perhaps, reach you in
the afternoon. It is quite understood as to the little painting,
and I think there can be no difficulty about the sum. The
only really interesting point is that I should be able to
produce the charming picture which, with the aid of Lady
Eden, ought to be expected. Once undertaken, however
slight, for me one work is as important as another, and
even more so, as Calino said. As for the amount, Moore,
I fancy, spoke of one hundred to one hundred and fifty

The letter is quite characteristic of the artist.
His interest was in the possibility of producing a
charming picture. The amount he mentioned was
less than he ordinarily asked for a water-color
sketch, and one-fifth that named by Goupil & Co.

It must be noted that the amount is not fixed
by Whistler, but is left at from one hundred to one



hundred and fifty pounds, depending of course upon
the painter's own feeling regarding his work, and
not depending in any sense upon the whim of the

The portrait went on towards completion. In-
stead of painting a head, as was originally suggested.
Whistler painted a full-length figure seated upon a
little sofa, the entire composition being quite as
elaborate an interior as if the canvas had been five
times the size. The picture was about fourteen to
sixteen inches long by five or six inches high, and
was such an exquisite bit of the painter's art that a
representative of a public gallery, who did not know
that it was a commission, offered for it twelve hun-
dred dollars, and higher offers were made.

Sir William Eden did not again refer to the price,
although he had many opportunities ; but on Febru-
ary 14, St. Valentine's day, the baronet visited the
studio and expressed himself as delighted with the
picture. On taking leave, he informed Mr. Whistler
that he was about to start for India on a hunting-
tour, and, taking an envelope from his pocket, he
handed it to the artist. " Here is a valentine for
you. Look at it after I have gone. Don't bother
about it just now."

When the artist opened his "valentine," he found
a check for one hundred guineas, — the minimum
amount mentioned in his letter. The baronet had
taken it upon himself to fix the price of the picture
on the eve of his departure. The "valentine" read
as follows :


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

"4 Rue de Presbourg, Paris, February 14, 1894.
"Dear Mr. Whistler: Herewith your valentine, —
cheque value one hundred guineas. The picture will always
be of inestimable value to me, and will be handed down as
an heirloom as long as heirlooms last.

" I shall always look with pleasure to the painting of it, —
and, with thanks, remain

' ' Yours sincerely,

"William Eden."

To which Whistler immediately replied :

" no Rue du Bag, Paris, February 14.

"My Dear Sir William: I have your valentine. You
really are magnificent, and have scored all round.

" I can only hope that the little picture will prove even
slightly worthy of all of us, and I rely on Lady Eden's
amiable promise to let me add the few last touches we know
of. She has been so courageous and kind all along in doing
her part.

"With best wishes again for your journey,
' ' Very faithfully,

"J. McNeill Whistler."

From the legal point of view Whistler made the
mistake of not immediately returning the check for
one hundred guineas, and the additional mistake of
exhibiting the picture in the Salon of the Champ
de Mars in the spring of 1894, as No. 1187, under
the title of " Brown and Gold. Portrait of Lady
E ."

But ultimately the one hundred guineas were re-
turned, and the baronet brought suit to secure the
possession of the picture.



Whistler would have permitted himself to be
drawn-and-quartered before Sir William Eden
should have any work of his. He felt, and most
justly, that a work which had been begun by him,
first, to oblige others, and secondly, as a labor of
love, had been placed upon a commercial footing
of the lowest level. He felt that there had been no
real desire to have one of his pictures on account
of its artistic merit, but that there had been an at-
tempt to secure something of commercial value for
one-third its market price.

The episode of the "valentine," truly ingeni-
ously devised, completely changed the relations
between the parties. He painted out the little
portrait, substituted another head, and stood ready
to return the hundred guineas and to pay whatever
damages the court might award the plaintiff; but
under no circumstances should the baronet have
the picture.

For the first time in the annals of litigation the
question was presented for final determination, —
whether an artist could be compelled to deliver
work which he claimed was not yet finished to his
satisfaction, even though he had received the price.
Be it said to the credit of the French tribunal of
last resort, that it held broadly that the artist is
master and proprietor of his work until such time
as it shall please him to deliver it. But that, failing
delivery, he must return the price with interest
thereon, together with such damages as the sitter
may have sustained.


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

The hand of the painter cannot be forced by the
importunity of either patient or impatient patron,
and no man but the painter himself can say when a
painting is sufficiently finished to be delivered.

Except in those few cases where Whistler took
such intense dislikes to sitters or purchasers that he
would not permit them to have his work under any
circumstances, there is no instance where the great
painter, in unduly delaying the delivery of a picture,
had any intention of depriving the owner of what
was rightfully his, — namely, the possession of the

Beyond the right of possession, Whistler did not
concede much to the owner. Frequently he chal-
lenged the owner's right to exhibit without his sanc-
tion, and he was quite inclined to deny to the owner
the moral right to sell at speculative prices. He
had a poor opinion of those who would buy from
the artist to sell later at a profit ; he classed them
as dealers.

Sitters did not always see things in the same light,
and became tired, then impatient, sometimes ugly.
Then Whistler would no longer like them, and the
sittings would come to an end. If the portrait was
unfinished, it was cast aside to remain forever un-
finished ; if finished, the money would be returned
and the portrait kept, — under no circumstances to
fall into the hands of a person whom he disliked.

The studio contained many an unfinished portrait,
some of them works of great beauty, but of com-



plete indifference to Whistler. He lost all interest
in them when he lost interest in the sitters ; and it

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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 16 of 18)