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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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tained, even at the sacrifice of the innocent, — the view
which led the military section of France to such
violent extremes against Dreyfus, — and Whistler re-
sented the assaults upon the army as treachery to
the most sacred institution of the state.

To the civilian this military bias which leads men
in all countries to such extremes in judgments and
actions is incomprehensible. The attitude of the



military mind towards the ordinary problems of
life, towards the faults and failings of men, towards
petty transgressions and disobediences, towards rank,
routine, and discipline, towards the courtesies and
sympathies and affections which are the leavening
influences of life, cannot be understood by the lay
mind. The soldier's training and occupation are
such that he does not think, feel, and act as an ordi-
nary man ; his standards, convictions, and ethics are
fundamentally different ; so different that he requires
his own territory, his own laws, and his own tri-
bunals. With the soldier the maxim of ordinary
justice that it is better that ten guilty should go free
than one innocent be condemned is reversed.

By birth, by tradition, by association. Whistler
was thoroughly saturated with this spirit ; and it
affected his conduct and his attitude towards people
throughout his life. It accounts for much of the im-
patience, the arrogance, the intolerance, the combat-
iveness, the indifference to the feelings of others with
which he is charged, or rather overcharged, for much
of what is said is exaggeration.

No man can be reared in an atmosphere of au-
thority and blind obedience to authority without
losing something of that give-and-take spirit which
softens life's asperities.

Therefore, in any estimate of Whistler's character
and of his conduct towards others, the influence of
these very unusual early associations and conditions
must be taken into account and due allowance made,


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler


An American — The Puritan Element — Attitude of
England and France — Racial and Universal
Qualities in Art — Art- Loving Nations.

Of Whistler's innate and aggressive Americanism
this is the place to speak.

English in origin, the family became Irish and
then American. In blood he was doubly removed
from England, first by Irish progenitors, then by
American, and in his entire make-up, physical and
intellectual, he was so absolutely un-English that to
the day of his death he was an object of curious
observation and wondering comment wherever he
went, in even so cosmopolitan a city as London.

There was nothing he loved better than to sur-
prise, mystify, confuse, and confound the stolid
Briton. And though he lived most of his life in
Chelsea and came back there to spend his last days,
he was from the very beginning and remained until
the end a stranger in a strange land, a solitary soul
in the midst of an uncongenial, unsympathetic, un-
appreciative, unloving people.

So little does England care for him or his art, or,
more truly, so prejudiced is the nation against him
as an impertinent interloper, who for more than a



generation disturbed the serenity of her art house-
hold, that the National Museum has no example of
his work. Needless to say, if he had been English,
or had come from the remotest of England's out-
lying possessions, English paperdom and English
officialdom would have claimed him as their own,
condoned his eccentricities, and bought his works
with liberal hand.

During the days of his greatest poverty and dis-
tress, when even France turned stupidly aside from
things she soon came to worship, and England was
jeering clumsily, and all nations repudiated him, —
our own the loudest of all, — he really seemed to be
"a man without a country," and, beyond question,
the injustice, the bitterness of it all entered deep
into his soul and remained. But whatever the folly,
the blindness, the stupidity of a country, though it
seek to cast off a child so brilliant he is not under-
stood, the ties remain ; however strained, they can-
not be broken. Nothing that America can do suf-
fices to make an Englishman or a Frenchman or a
German out of an American, — the man himself may
take on a foreign veneer, but beneath the surface he
belongs where blood and birth have placed him.

He was infinitely more of an American than thou-
sands who live at home and ape the manners of
Europe. He came from a line of ancestors so dis-
tinctively and aggressively American that he could
not have turned out otherwise had he tried.


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

He was not even an Anglo-American or a Franco-
American, but of all the types and races which go *
to make the American people he was in blood, ap-
pearance, alertness, combativeness, wit, and a thou-
sand and one traits, an exceedingly refined illustra-
tion of the Irish-American ; and because of his Irish
blood, with perhaps some Scotch on his mother's
side, he was never in sympathy with anything Eng-
lish, but was now and then somewhat in sympathy
with many things French, though the points of
sympathetic contact were so slight and superficial
that he could not live contentedly for any length of
time in Paris. In his art, his convictions, and his
conventions he was altogether too profound, too
serious, too earnest — one might with truth say, too
puritanical — to find the atmosphere of Paris alto-
gether congenial. His great portraits might have
come from the studio of a Covenanter, but never
from a typical Paris atelier.

The Puritan element which is to be found in every
American achievement, whether in war, in art, or in
literature, though often deeply hidden, is conspicu-
ous in Whistler's work, though he himself would
probably have been the first to deny it ; and it is
this element of sobriety, of steadfastness, of unde-
viating adherence to convictions and ideals that
constitutes the firm foundation of his art, of his
many brilliant and beautiful superstructures of

Only a Puritan at heart could have painted the
4 49


"Carlyle," "His Mother," and that wonderful child
portrait, " Miss Alexander,"

Only a Puritan at heart could have painted the
mystery of night with all his tender, loving, religious

Only a Puritan at heart could have exhibited as
he did in everything he touched those infinitely pre-
cious qualities of reserve, of delicacy, of refinement,
which are the conspicuous characteristics of his work.

Concerning his refinement some one has very truly
remarked :

" He so hated everything ugly or unclean that, even in the
club smoking-rooms (where one may sometimes hear rather
Rabelaisian tales), he never told a story which could not have
been repeated in the presence of modest women. His per-
sonal daintiness was extreme. Threadbare coats on him
were never shabby. He had to wear too many threadbare
garments, poor fellow ! for, inasmuch as he put the integrity
of his art before everything else, he never stooped to make
those ' pretty' things which would have brought him a for-
tune, without doubt. He was abstemious in his living,
simple in all that he did, — his exquisite, sure taste preventing
him from extremes, gaudiness, or untidiness."

And when he lent his support, some eight years
ago, to the school kept by Carmen Rossi, who as a
child had been one of his models, he would not tol-
erate the study of the nude by mixed classes, and,
in fact, introduced many rules and restrictions which
were considered by even American pupils as "puri-
tanical" in the extreme, and which the French could
not understand at all.




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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

He never painted any large and aggressive nudes,
such as abound in French art, such as, in a way, may
be said to characterize French art and mark its atti-
tude towards life ; but he made many drawings in
water-color and pastel, and painted some oils, all,
however, exquisitely refined, the element of the
nude being in every instance subordinated to the
artistic scheme and intention. Many of these draw-
ings have never been exhibited. When seen they
will go far towards demonstrating the puritanical
element in Whistler.

In his intolerance towards the methods, convic-
tions, and ideals of others he exhibited some of the
spirit of the Puritan zealot who knows no creed but
his own.

Concerning his Americanism, one who knew him
says : ^

"Upon the known facts of Whistler's career I do not
touch. I wish only to underline his Americanism, and
to offer you one or two personal memories. He was ' an
American of the Americans,' say the American papers, and
who shall venture to dispute their dictum ? Not I, certainly.
Nor would anybody who knew Whistler personally. I knew
him for many years in London and in Paris. I have many
letters from him on art and other matters, some of which
ought to be printed, for his letters to friends were not less
works of art than those which he composed more carefully
for print. I have books and drawings which he gave me.
I mention these things as evidence that I may fairly say
something about him, at least on the personal side. And I

^ G. W. Smalley, in the London Times.


knew on what terms he lived with the so-called art world in
England, and what his own view of the matter was."

And an English writer said, some ten years ago :^

' ' It should not be forgotten in America that Mr. Whistler
is an American of Americans. It may therefore be appro-
priately asked, What has America done for him ? It has
treated him with — if possible — even more ignorance than
England ; this, of course, coming from the desire of the
Anglomaniac to out-English the English."

And there are others whose testimony will be
forthcoming some day to show how wholly and
absolutely American he was to the very core and
centre of his being, and in his attitude towards all
countries and peoples of Europe.

It is true he said many harsh, bitter, and cutting
things concerning the press and people of this coun-
try, that he frequently exhibited in the English sec-
tions of art exhibitions in preference to those of his
own country ; but for all these things there were
many good reasons, and we have but ourselves to

He was so much of an American that a single
word of ridicule from this side cut deeper than
pages of abuse from the other. To the scofifings of
England he turned a careless ear, and replied with
flippant, but pointed, tongue ; while the utter lack
of support and appreciation from his own country
was ever referred to with a bitterness that betrayed

^ The Nation, vol. liv., pp. 280-281, April 14, 1892. J

52 :

OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

his real feelings. He could not understand how the
American people could desert a countryman bat-
tling alone against all England. As he frequently-
said : >

" It did not matter whether I was in the right or
in the wrong, — I was one against the mob. Why did
America take the side of the mob, — and — and get

America was blind to his merits until long after
he achieved fame in every country of Europe ; and
it is undeniably true that the press here truculently
echoed the slurs of the critics on the other side
throughout that long period of controversy. It is a
lamentable fact that up to the day of his death he
was misunderstood, or accepted as an eccentric in
many quarters of the land that now claims him as
her bright particular star in the firmament of art.
Notwithstanding all these things, he remained so
conspicuously an American that every Englishman
and every Frenchman with whom he came in con-
tact recognized him as a foreigner ; neither would
have thought of mistaking him for a fellow-country-
man ; he was as un-English and un-French as an
Italian, or a Spaniard, or — better — as an American,

The "White Girl" was rejected at the Salon in
1863 ; the "Portrait of my Mother" was accepted
by the Royal Academy and obscurely hung in 1871,
only after a bitter discussion, in which the one mem-
ber of the committee who favored it. Sir William



Boxall, a friend of Whistler's family, threatened to
resign unless it was accepted.

This same great portrait — it is said on good au-
thority — was offered in New York for twelve hundred
dollars and found no buyer.

When exhibited in London, language failed to
express the full measure of the scorn and contempt
the English press — from the ponderous Times down
to the most insignificant fly-sheet — had for this won-
derful picture ; but no sooner had the French gov-
ernment purchased it for the Luxembourg than all
was changed, and with delightful effrontery the
Ilbistrated London News said :

"Modern ^rzVw// (!) art will now be represented
in the National Gallery of the Luxembourg by
one of the finest paintings due to the brush of an
English (!) artist, — namely, Mr. Whistler's portrait
of his mother."

The italics and exclamation marks are Whistler's
own, and his denial of British complicity is complete.

Aside from Whistler's personality, his art finds its
only congenial place in the midst of American art.

That his pictures will not hang in any conceivable
exhibition of British art without the incongruity
being painfully perceptible goes without saying, and
none knows this better than English painters them-

Of all the various manifestations of art with which
Whistler's has come in sharp contrast, English paint-
ing has been the slowest and most stubborn in yield-


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

ing to influences from the far East ; whereas of all
painters of the nineteenth century Whistler was the
very first to recognize the wondrous qualities of
Chinese and Japanese art and absorb what those
countries had to teach concerning line and color ;
and in so far as the painters of England, and more
conspicuously those of Scotland, have learned aught
of the subtleties and refinements of the East, they
have learned it through Whistler, and not direct.

In other words, Whistler has been absolutely im-
mune to English influences ; there is not the faintest
trace in any of his works, etchings, lithographs, or
paintings. In temperament, mood, fancy, and im-
agination, in what he saw and the manner that he
painted it, he was as far removed from any " English
School" as Hokusai himself

On the other hand, England for some time has not
been immune to his influence, and things after — a
long way after — Whistler appear at eveiy exhibition.
What is known as the " Glasgow School" — that body
of able and progressive painters — long ago frankly
accepted him as master.

Of English painters dead and living he had a
poor — possibly too poor — opinion. He frequently
said, '• England never produced but one painter,
and that was Hogarth." In mellower moments he
would say not unkind things of certain qualities in
other men ; towards the living painters who appre-
ciated his art he was oftentimes generous in the be-
stowal of praise. But it was impossible for Whistler
to say a thing was good if he did not think so ; and



he would exercise all his ingenuity to get out of
expressing an opinion when he knew his real opinion
would hurt the feelings of a friend. Towards stran-
gers and enemies he was often almost brutal in
condemning what was bad, — as when a rich man took
him over his new house, dwelling with pride and
enthusiasm on this extraordinary feature and that,
at each of which Whistler would exclaim, " Amazing,
amazing !" until at the end of their tour of the
rooms and halls, he at last said, "Amazing, — and
there's no excuse for it !"

Of his attitude towards others a friendly writer
said : ^

" He was not a devotee of Turner, but he yielded to no
man in appreciation of certain of the works of that painter.
He was not lavish of praise where his contemporaries were
concerned. Though he could say pleasant things about
them in a rather vague way, — calling some young painter ' a
good fellow,' and so on, — words of explicit admiration he
did not promiscuously bestow. The truth is, there was an
immense amount of stuff which he saw in the exhibitions
which he frankly detested. Yet conversation with him did
not leave the impression that he was a man grudging of
praise. It was rather that a picture had to be exceptionally
good to excite his emotions. One point is significant. It
was not the flashy and popular painter that he invited to
share in the gatherings for which his Paris studio was noted :
it was the painter like Puvis de Chavannes, the man who had
greatness in him."

^ New York Tribune, July 26, 1903.

OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

That he had nothing in common with EngHsh art,
the English were quick to assert, until his fame made
him a desirable acquisition, when on this side, and
that within the last few years, a disposition to claim
him — very much as the business-like empire seizes
desirable territory here and there about the globe —
has begun to show itself; and, unless America is alert,
Whistler will yet appear in the National Gallery as
— to quote again the words of the Illustrated News
— "An English artist."

As regards the French, they are disposed to claim
Whistler on three grounds :

First. That he was a student there, — with a mas-
ter who taught him nothing.

Second. That France acknowledged his genius
by the purchase of the portrait of his mother, —
twenty years after it was painted, and seven after it
was exhibited in Paris.

Third. That he lived for a time in Paris.

Three reasons which would annex to France about
every American artist of note, for most of them (i)
studied in France, (2) are represented in the Luxem-
bourg, and (3) have lived in Paris much longer than

As for those first few years in Paris, even the
French concede that Gleyre was entirely without
influence upon Whistler's subsequent career.

As regards the recognition of his genius, France
was exceedingly slow. The portrait of his mother



was exhibited in London in 1871, and purchased
for the Luxembourg in 1891, though it had been
awarded a medal at the Salon some seven years

France no more taught Whistler to paint than it
taught him to etch. His masters were older and
greater than the art of France. Before he was
twenty-five he had absorbed all and rejected most
that France had to teach. At twenty-eight he
painted a picture which, scorned by the Salon,
startled all who visited the "Salon des Refuses,"
and then — still under thirty — he shook the dust of
France from his feet, obliterated every vestige of
her influence from his art, and started out to make
his way alone and unaided in the domain of the

In 1865 he again stirred the critics with that
novel creation of color "The Princess of the Land
of Porcelain." Nothing of the kind had ever been
seen in either French or any other art. It was the
application of Western methods to Eastern motives ;
it was plainly a study primarily in color, secondarily
in line, not at all in character. It was the first great
step taken by the Western world towards abstract art.

"The Princess of the Land of Porcelain," the
"Lange Leizen," the "Gold Screen," the "Bal-
cony" — all early pictures — are all one and the same
in motive ; they are his first attempts in a large way
to produce color harmonies, to subordinate every-
thing to the color composition.





\ been

and then — ; ;< the dust cf

France from h> vestige of

her influence from his art, and started out to make
his way alone and unaided in the domain of the


he color -


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Of Whistler and American art in those days an
unnamed correspondent has written from Paris : ^

" It would puzzle the analysis of a competent critic to find
what Whistler owed to Gleyre ; and the young American
openly professed to have profited by the counter example of
Gustave Courbet, who was the realist of that day. From
the first triumph of Courbet in 1 849, Gleyre had shrunk back
into his shell and no longer exhibited at the annual salons.

" From the start Whistler was an independent ; and when,
after six years of work in the studios, he offered a picture for
the judgment of the official Salon, the jury promptly refused
it. Whistler was not discouraged, and hung the painting in
the outlaws' Salon des Refuses. It created a stir that was
almost enthusiasm, and the name of his ' Fille Blanche' —
White Maiden — was still remembered when four years later
a few American painters demanded a section for their work
at the Universal Exposition of 1867. I have looked up a
criticism of the time, and imagine it will be found more in-
teresting now than when it was written.

"'The United States of America are surely a great
country and the North Americans a great people, but what
little artists they are ! The big daubs which they exhibit,
under pretence of "Blue Mountains," "Niagara Falls,"
"Genesee Plain," or " Rain in the Tropics," show as much
childish arrogance as boyish ignorance. People say that
these loud placards are sold for crazy prices in Philadelphia
or Boston. I am willing to believe it, but I cannot rejoice
at it.'

' ' This is laid on with no light brush, and some of us can
recall the American painters of that remote age who were so
mishandled. But the remaining paragraph of the lines
given to American art may surprise those who look on
Whistler as only a contemporary.

^ New York Evening Post, August i , 1 903.


" ' M. Whistler seems to me the only American artist
really worthy of attention ; he is our old acquaintance of the
Salon des Refuses of 1863, where his "Fille Blanche" had a
suces d' engouement (a success of infatuation !). He is truly
an American, as understood by the motto, "time is money."
M. Whistler so well knows the value of time that he scarcely
stops at the small points of execution ; the impression seized
as it flies and fixed as soon as possible in swift strokes, with
a galloping brush — such is the artist and such, too, is the

"Velasquez was already in the air, but Japanese art, to
which Whistler afterwards allowed himself to be thought in-
debted, was not yet spoken of. Thus the young American
artist was the precursor of movements which years after-
wards came to a head, and which for the most part he has
outlived. In view of this, the closing verdict of the official
critic of 1867 is worth noting, the more so as it shows the
reward already attributed to the American's industry in
another branch of art. ' While waiting for M. Whistler to
become a painter in the sense which old Europe still attaches
to the word, he is already an etcher {aquafortist e), all fire
and color, and very worthy of attention, even if he had only
this claim to it.'

Before France cared very much for Velasquez,
before it so much as knew there was an island called
Japan on the art map, Whistler was playing with
the blacks and grays of the master of Madrid and
with the blues and silvery whites of the porcelains
of the Orient.

And it was he, — Whistler, — the American, who
turned the face of France towards the East, and
made her see things in line and color her most
vagrant fancy had never before conceived.

Searching the shops of Amsterdam, he found the


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

blue-and-white china which gave him inspiration to
do those things beside which the finest art of France
is crude and barbaric.

Not very long ago a French writer said, "There
is not, as yet, an American school of painting, but
there are already many American painters, and great
ones, who will in time form a school."

Let us hope not.

A friend — a painter — once called Whistler's atten-

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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 3 of 18)