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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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He once had an engagement to dine with some
distinguished people in a distant part of London.
A friend who wished to be on time was waiting for
him in the studio. It was growing late, but Whistler
kept on painting, more and more absorbed.

"My dear fellow," his friend urged at last, "it is

frightfully late, and you have to dine with Lady .

Don't you think you'd better stop?"

29



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

"Stop?" fairly shrieked Whistler. "Stop, when
everything is going so beautifully? Go and stuff
myself with food when I can paint like this ? Never !
Never ! Besides, they won't do anything until I get
there, — they never do !"

An official connected with an international art
exhibition was about to visit Paris to consult with
the artists. To save time, he sent notes ahead
making appointments at his hotel with the different
men at different hours. To Whistler he sent a note
fixing a day at "4.30 precisely," whereupon Whist-
ler regretfully replied :

" Dear Sir : I have received your letter announcing that
you will arrive in Paris on the — th. I congratulate you. I
never have been able, and never shall be able, to be any-
where at '4.30 precisely.'

' ' Yours most faithfully,

"J. McN. Whistler."

To the stereotyped inquiry of the sitter :

"About how many sittings do you require, Mr.
Whistler?"

"Dear me, how can I tell? Perhaps one, per-
haps — more."

" But — can't you give me some idea, so I can
arrange "

"Bless me, but you must not permit the doing
of so trivial a thing as a portrait to interfere with
the important affairs of life. We will just paint in
those odd moments when you have nothing better
to do."

30



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

" Suppose I am compelled to leave the city before
it is finished ?"

" You will return next summer, and we will re-
sume where w^e left off, as the continued-story-teller
says."

And no amount of persuasion could get him to
say when he expected to finish a work.

He would frequently say :

"We will just go ahead as if there were one long
holiday before us, without thinking of the end, and
some day, when we least expect it, the picture is
finished ; but if we keep thinking of the hours in-
stead of the work, it may never come to an end."

This indifference to time kept him young — to the
very last. He persistently refused to note the flight
of years.

There was once a very old Indian, how old no
one knew, in Northern Michigan who, when asked
his age by the pertinaciously curious, always replied,
" I do not count the years ; white people do — and
die."

His father went to Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834
to take charge of the construction of the canals and
locks. He resided in a house on Worthen Street,
and there Whistler was born on July 10.

In a history of Lowell it is stated that Whistler
was probably born in what was known as the Paul
Moody house, a fine old house which stood on the
site of the present city hall ; but quite possibly the
family occupied a house owned by the proprietors

31



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

of the locks and canals, which still stands and is
pointed out as the " Locks and Canal house."

The old parish book of St. Anne's Episcopal
Church contains the following entry under 1834 :

" Nov. 9, Baptized James Abbott, infant son of
George Washington and Anna Mathilda Whistler.
Sponsors, the parents. T. Edson."

Rev. Theodore Edson was the rector of the church.

The adoption of his mother's maiden name,
McNeill, as part of his own was apparently an after-
thought.

He had two brothers, William and Kirke, a half-
brother, George, and a half-sister, Deborah, who
married Seymour Haden, the well-known physician
and etcher, who figures in "Gentle Art" as the " Sur-
geon-etcher." Of the brothers, Kirke died young,
George remained in this country, William became a
well-known physician in London, dying a few years
ago.

The family afterwards spent a short time in Ston-
ington, where Major Whistler had charge of the con-
struction of the railroad to Providence. They used
to drive to church in Westerly in a chaise fitted
with railway wheels, so as to travel on the tracks.
There were no Sunday trains in those days, so the
track was clear. An ingenious device enabled the
horse to cross the culverts.

A locomotive named "Whistler" after the dis-
tinguished engineer — a felicitous name — was in use
until comparatively few years ago.

32



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

In the spring of 1840 Major Whistler was ap-
pointed consulting engineer for the Western Rail-
road, running from Springfield to Albany, and the
family moved to Springfield and lived in what " is
now known as Ethan Chapin homestead, on Chestnut
Street, north of Edwards Street."

Old residents of the vicinity claim to remember
" well the curly locks and bright, animated counte-
nance of the boy," and that the three boys "were
always full of mischief," — not an uncommon trait
in youngsters, probably still less uncommon in Whist-
lers.

Shortly after the railroad to Albany was opened a
wreck occurred, and a niece of Major Whistler, who
was on her way to visit him, was badly injured. She
was taken to his house, and it was a long time before
she recovered.

The accident made a strong impression on Whist-
ler, and possibly accounts for some of the dislike he
often showed towards travelling alone. It was only
in crossing crowded streets and in the confusion and
bustle of travel that he showed what might be called
nervousness.

With characteristic gallantry he would offer a lady
his arm to aid her in crossing the Strand or the
Boulevard, but he made sure of the places of refuge
and took no chances ; if in a hurry, she would better
cross alone.

Once, not many years ago, he was at Dieppe, and
wrote a friend in Paris almost daily that he would be
in the city to see him. A week passed, and the
3 33



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

friend, fearing he would be obliged to leave without
seeing Whistler, wrote him he would come to Dieppe
and see the work he was doing there, to which sug-
gestion Whistler replied most cordially by wire.

The friend packed and went, expecting to stay a
night or two at least ; but, lo ! Whistler, bag in hand,
met him in the village to take the next train back ;
whereupon the friend, much surprised, said :

" If you intended going to Paris to-day, why
under the sun did you let me ride half a day to get
here ?"

"Well, you see, I don't like to travel alone ; happy
thought yours to come down after me."

And back they went, after a delightful luncheon in
that little old restaurant near the cathedral, where
there is an ancient stone trough filled with water for
cooling and cleaning vegetables. The luncheon, the
way it was ordered, and the running fire of comment
and directions by Whistler to the stout old woman
who did it all, were worth the journey to Dieppe.

Whistler will be mourned more by these lowly
people who used to serve him with pleasure, because
he took such a vital interest in what they did, than
by many who own his works.

A diary kept by the artist's mother contains this
entry, under date of July lO, 1844 :

"A poem selected by my darling Jamie, and put
under my plate at the breakfast- table, as a surprise
on his tenth birthday."

The little poem of twelve lines was addressed

34



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

"To My Mother," and subscribed "Your Little
James."

When the boy was eleven years old, Sir William
Allen, a Scotch painter, visited the family. Mrs.
Whistler's diary contains the following entry :

"The chat then turned upon the subject of Sir William
Allen's painting of Peter the Great teaching the majiks to
make ships. This made Jimmie's eyes express so much
interest that his love for the art was discovered, and Sir
William must needs see his attempts. When my boys had
said good-night, the great artist remarked to me, ' Your little
boy has uncommon genius, but do not urge him beyond his
inclination.' I told him his gift had only been cultivated as
an amusement, and that I was obliged to interfere, or his ap-
phcation would confine him more than we approved, ' '

The diary records the same year a visit to the old
palace at Peterhoff, where " our Jimmie was so saucy
as to laugh" at Peter's own paintings.

When Major Whistler first went to Russia he left
"Jamie" for a time in Stonington with his aunt,
and the two older children, George and Deborah, in
England.

After the death of Major Whistler, in St. Peters-
burg, in 1849, the wife and children returned to this
country, and lived for a time in Connecticut.

Whistler wished to enter West Point, and he per-
suaded his half-brother to write Daniel Webster,
to enlist his sympathy. The letter was dated Febru-
ary 19, 1 85 1. It referred to the father's career and

35



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

services and asked that James be appointed to the
Academy.

He was appointed by President Fillmore, and
entered July i, 185 1, registering from Pomfret,
Windham County, Connecticut, where his mother
was then living.

Whistler was so small in stature and physique that
it is surprising he was received ; the military record
of his family was no doubt the controlling considera-
tion.

He possessed all the pugnacity and courage re-
quired for a soldier, and the military spirit was strong
in him, yet such was his bent towards art that his
career at the Academy was not one of glory ; but he
became very popular with his comrades and proba-
bly led in all their mischievous pranks.

The official records show that at the end of the
first year, in 1852, he stood forty-one in a class of
fifty-two, — his standing in the different studies being
as follows: Mathematics 47, English studies 51,
French 9. At the end of his second year he stood
number one in drawing, but was not examined in
other studies, being absent with leave on account
of ill health. In 1854 his standing was as follows :
Philosophy 39, Drawing i, Chemistry deficient.
For his deficiency in chemistry he was discharged
from the Academy on June 16, 1854.

A lady once asked him why he left the Academy,
and he replied :

" If silicon had been a gas, madame, I should have
been a soldier."

36



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

On leaving West Point he took it into his head
that Fate had intended him for a sailor, and he tried
to enter the Naval Academy at Annapolis, but he
could not get the appointment.

Through an old friend of the family. Captain Ben-
ham, of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, he was
employed as draughtsman in that department in
Washington from November 7, 1854, to February
12, 1855, at one dollar and a half a day. In these
days he signed himself James A. Whistler. His
lodgings were in an old house still standing on the
northeast corner of E and Twelfth Streets. He was
always late to breakfast, and scribbled pictures on
the unpapered walls. When the landlord objected,
he said :

" Now, now, never mind ; I'll not charge you any-
thing for the decoration."

Neither time nor the rules of the department had
any terrors for him. Even in those early days he
was a law unto himself In one instance the fol-
lowing entry appears against his name :

"Two days absent and two days deducted from
monthly pay for time lost by coming late to
office."

To correct these dilatory habits Captain Benham
conceived the brilliant idea of having a fellow-clerk
of punctual habits call each morning for Whistler
and bring him to the office on time. The captain
believed that the example and influence of a more
methodical companion would reform the erring one
and get him to the office at nine o'clock; but it

2,7



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

turned out quite otherwise, for Whistler proved so
charming a host each morning that both were late.

At the end of a week the mentor reported that
his efforts were wasted and unless relieved he, too,
would acquire the obnoxious habit, for each morning
Whistler managed to so interest him in the mysteries
of coffee-making and the advantages of late break-
fasts that it was impossible to get away.

Of him and his habits in those days a fellow-
draughtsman,^ who is still in the service, says :

" He was about one year younger than myself, and there-
fore about twenty years old at that time. He stayed but a
little over three months, and 1 have not met him since, but
retain a more vivid recollection of his sojourn than of that
of many other draughtsmen who succeeded him and remained
much longer. This may be partly for the reason that Cap-
tain Benham, who was then in charge of the office, told me
that Whistler's father had been a star graduate of West
Point and a distinguished engineer, and requested me to be
attentive to the new appointee ; it may also be for the reason
that there was something peculiar about Whistler's person
and actions quite at variance with the ordinary run of my
experience.

' ' His style of dress indicated an indifference to fashion
which, under circumstances, might be changed into emanci-
pation when fashion, for instance, went into extremes and
exacted personal discomforts. I certainly cannot remember
Whistler with a high-standing collar and silk hat, which was
then the universal custom. Classical models seemed to be
his preference, a short circular cloak and broad-brimmed
felt hat gave him a finish which reminded one of some of



1 Mr. A. Lindenkohl, now the oldest draughtsman in the
department.

38



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Rembrandt's celebrated portraits. His tout ensemble Yv^lA a.
strong tinge of Bohemianism which suggested that his tastes
and habits had been acquired in Paris, or, more concisely
speaking, in the Quartier Latin ; indeed, he always spoke of
Paris with enthusiasm. His manners were those of an easy
self-reliance which conveyed the impression that he was a
man who minded his own business, but that it would not be
exactly safe to cross his paths.

"At the time of his engagement as draughtsman at the
office not the slightest doubt was entertained of his skill and
ability to fill his post, and it was the principal concern of
Captain Benham to get him sufficiently interested in his
work to engage his serious attention. It was, however, soon
apparent that he considered topographical drawing as a
tiresome drudgery, and when he was put on etching views
on copper plate, this occupation, although more congenial to
his tastes, was yet too monotonous and mechanical and did
not afford sufficient scope to his peculiar talent for sketching
off-hand figures and to make him feel contented. Any odd
moment he could snatch from his work he was busy in
throwing off his impromptu compositions on the margins of
his drawings or plate ; odd characters, such as monks, knights,
beggars, seemed to be his favorites. He was equally skilful
with pen and ink, pencil, brush and sepia after the Spanish
style, or dry point in the English, and often I was struck by
the facility and rapidity with which he evolved his inventions,
there never was the shadow of a dilemma or even hesitancy.

" From the very start he never was punctual in attendance,
and as time wore on he would absent himself for days and
weeks without tendering any excuse. As far as I remember,
nobody, except Captain Benham, cared to speak to Whistler
about his irregularity, for the reason that it was certain that
no thanks would be earned and that it would not have made
the slightest difference in his habits. Howsoever that may
have been, Colonel Porterfield, the clerk, was a strict ac-
countant, and his monthly reports told the whole story.

39



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

Thus in one month two days were deducted from Whistler's
pay for time lost in coming late to office, and in January,
1855, he was credited with but six and one-half days' work,
which reduced his scant pay to a mere pittance.

' ' Under these circumstances three months were quite suf-
ficient length of time for Whistler and the office to realize
that the employment of Whistler as a draughtsman was an
experiment destined to be a failure, and I do not think that
a trace of ill feeling was retained when it was concluded by
both parties to effect a separation and let each one go his
own way."

At that time Edward de Stoeckl was charge
d'affaires of the Russian embassy. He had known
Major Whistler in St. Petersburg, and he took a
great fancy to his son.

One day Whistler invited him to dinner, and this
is the account of what happened :

"Whistler engaged a carriage and called for his distin-
guished friend. As they drove on. Whistler turned to the
diplomat and asked him if he would object to their stopping
at several places on the way. M. de Stoeckl, amused at the
unconventionality of the request, assented, and his young
host then directed the coachman to a greengrocer's, a con-
fectioner's, a tobacconist's, and to several other tradesmen.

"After visiting each of these he would reappear with his
arms filled with packages, which he deposited on the vacant
seat of the carriage. At last the two brought up at Whistler's
lodgings. After a climb up many stairs the representative
of the Czar of all the Russias found himself in Whistler's
attic.

"Quite out of breath, he was obliged to sit down, too
exhausted to speak, during which time Whistler flitted hither
and thither, snipping a lettuce into shape for the salad, dry-
ing the oysters, browning the biscuit, preparing the cheese,

40



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

and in an incredibly short time setting a sumptuous repast
before his astonished guest, who was dehghted with the
unique hospitality of the host."

A comrade in office describes Whistler's appear-
ance in those days :

" He was very handsome, graceful, dressed in good taste,
with a leaning towards the style of the artist in the selection
of his clothing. His hair was a blue-black and worn very
long, and the bushy appearance seemed to give one the
impression that each separate hair was curled. Always at
this time he wore a large slouch hat and a loose coat, gen-
erally unbuttoned, and thrown back so that the waistcoat was
plainly seen."

He never changed very much from that descrip-
tion, save that his hair became sHghtly gray, and
one lock directly over the forehead turned com-
pletely white very prematurely. To this white lock
Whistler took a great fancy, and it is visible in the
portraits and drawings he made of himself His
hair was naturally very curly, — an inheritance from
his father, — and out of the mass of black curls the
white lock would spring with almost uncanny effect.

To the very end he was extremely fastidious in
his dress. In the days when threadbare coats were
a luxury he wore them spotlessly clean, and carried
old and worn garments in such a manner that they
appeared as if made for the occasion.

In his studio and while at work he was never
mussy or untidy ; he had more than a woman's
notion of neatness.

41



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

He was not only very careful of his clothes, but
they must be buttoned and adjusted just so before
he would make his appearance. On him a frock
coat was never stiff and ungraceful, and somehow
he managed to dissipate the dreary formality of
evening dress. It was always a pleasure to see him
enter a room ; while on the street he was, in his
earlier London days, exceedingly picturesque.

He was very particular concerning his hats. In
the latter Paris days he always wore a most care-
fully-brushed silk hat with flat brim, — the Quartier-
Latin type. This, with his monocle — for on the street
he wore a monocle — and his long overcoat, made
him an exceedingly striking figure.

One day he was in a shop, trying on a hat, when
a dissatisfied customer rushed in, and, mistaking him
for some one in charge, said :

" I say, this 'at doesn't fit."

Eyeing him critically a moment. Whistler said :

"Neither does your coat."

Whistler was thoroughly imbued with the military
spirit ; and if he had not been a great artist he would
have made a good officer. He was born to com-
mand, and possessed physical courage of a high order.

In stature and physique he was short and very
slight, — could not have weighed more than one hun-
dred and thirty pounds ; but he was so perfectly
proportioned that one did not notice his size except
when in sharp contrast with others. Notwithstand-
ing his inferiority in size and strength, he never in

42



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

his life had the shghtest hesitation in striking a man
— even at the risk of annihilation — if he deemed the
occasion required it.

A good many years ago the editor of a gossipy
sheet in London, called the Hazvk, printed some
items of a personal nature which Whistler resented.
Not knowing the editor by sight, Whistler took a
friend to point him out in the foyer of one of the
London theatres. Although the man was a giant
compared with Whistler, the latter, without a
moment's hesitation, went up to him and struck
him across the face with a cane, saying with each
blow, "Hawk, Hawk, Hawk."

The editor afterwards boasted that he imme-
diately knocked Whistler down. Whistler claimed
he slipped and fell ; but, he said :

' ' What difference does it make whether he knocked me
down or whether I shpped ? The fact is he was publicly
caned, and what happened afterwards could not offset the
publicity and nature of this chastisement. A gentleman
lightly strikes another in the face with a glove ; the bully
thinks the insult is wiped out if he knocks some one down —
the ethics of the prize ring ; but according to the older
notions the gentleman knows that the soft touch of the glove
cannot be effaced by a blow of the fist, — for if it could, supe-
riority in weight would render the cad and the bully immune.
The historical fact is that I publicly drew my cane across his
face ; no one cares anything about his subsequent ragings, or
whether I slipped and fell, or whether he trampled upon me.

Again, when an artist went up to him in the
Hogarth Club in London and called him a liar and
a coward, Whistler promptly slapped his face.

43



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

So far as controversies with opponents were con-
cerned, he was courageous to the point of indiffer-
ence ; but, as already noted, in crossing busy streets
and making his way through the hurly-burly of city
life he was as careful, not to say timid, as a woman ; he
had many superstitions which influenced his actions.

One afternoon he said to a sitter :

"To-morrow, you know, we won't work."

"Why not?"

" Well, you see, it's Friday ; and last Friday, you
remember, what a bad time we had, — accomplished
nothing. An unlucky day anyway. We'll take a
holiday to-morrow."

The military spirit clung to him through life, and
he was ever in the habit of referring to his experi-
ence at West Point as if it were the one entirely
satisfactory episode in his career. He called him-
self a "West- Pointer," and insisted that the Academy
was the one institution in the country the superiority
of which to everything of its kind in the world was
universally admitted.

" Why, you know, West Point is America."

Though living in Paris at the time and the sym-
pathy of all France was with Spain, he lost no op-
portunity for upholding the United States in the war.
He could see no flaw in the attitude or the diplomacy
of this country, and was especially eloquent over the
treatment of Admiral Cervera after his defeat.

On the other hand, such was his ingrained dislike
for England that he lost no opportunity for declaiming

44



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

against her war in South Africa. He delighted in
berating the EngHsh and in prodding any English
sympathizer who happened in his way.

One day a friend from this side, of Irish birth, but
who sided with England, was in his studio, and the
discussion waxed warm until the visitor said :

"I'll be dashed if I'll talk with you, Whistler.
What do you know about the matter? Nothing at all."

After a short silence. Whistler said :

" But, I say, C , do you remember how the

Boers whipped the Dublin Fusileers?"

Whereupon the air became sulphurous.

The friend afterwards remarked :

" There was nothing in the malicious innuendo
anyway, for, you know, those regiments are recruited
from all quarters, and there may not have been a single
Irishman in the Fusileers at the time of the fight."

Whistler held some extraordinary opinions con-
cerning the Dreyfus case, the outcome of his strong
military bias.

It did not matter to him whether the accused was
guilty or not, the prestige of the army must be main-


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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 2 of 18)