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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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tion to several very good things by Alfred Stevens.
Whistler looked at them a moment, then said,
"School, school, school," and turned away.

In that, or any other restrictive or regulative sense
of the word, let us hope there will be no " American
school ;" but so long as there are American paint-
ers there will be American paintings ; and the greater
the work the more completely will it reflect the man,
and the greater the man the more surely and subtly
will it reflect his nationality.

The phrase "American painters" means some-
thing more than Americans who paint, and " Ameri-
can paintings" implies the transmission to the w^ork
of something of the painter's individuality, which in-
cludes as an important element his racial and national

In other words, American painters, regardless of
where they are trained, where they work, and what
they paint, must produce American paintings ; they
cannot wholly eliminate their individuality and na-
tionality ; they cannot become so completely French



or English as to absolutely obliterate every trace of
their American origin, and their works, though Eng-
lish, French, or Italian to the last degree, will still
exhibit traces of American origin. So true is this,
that the paintings of men who have lived longest
abroad and tried hardest to paint after the manner
of others find their most congenial surroundings
amidst American art.

So long as we have American paintings we shall
have an American "school" in the sense that all
American paintings taken together, whether few or
many, whether good or bad, will be distinguished
and distinguishable from the paintings of every other
country. In that sense America has, and always has
had, a "school" of painting, though for a long time
the school was little more than a kindergarten.

America has no centre like Paris, or Rome, or
Florence, where a large body of men and women
are gathered from the four quarters of the globe to
study art. In that sense America has no "school;"
but that sort of a " school" is about the worst thing
that can happen to a country. These great centres
for the diffusion of art are usually fatal to the devel-
opment of native art ; the presence of a horde of
foreigners, each with his own peculiarities and char-
acteristics, some with the effeminacy of the South,
others with the brutal force and overpowering virilty
of the North, stifles national initiative and produces
sterile cosmopolites.

Paris, with its salons, exhibitions, competitions,


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

medals, prizes, and innumerable incentives towards
commercial, blatant, and vicious art, is the curse of
French art, and pretty soon France will have no art
that is really hers.

The atmosphere of Paris is one of strenuous
striving after effect, of mighty endeavor to make an
impression ; it encourages facility, dash, bravura,
eccentricities, and experiments of all kinds. From
the depths of our hearts let us be thankful that
America has no "school" of that kind, and earn-
estly hope that American artists residing tempora-
rily within that atmosphere will be affected as little
as was Whistler.

Paris is an aesthetic Babel.

The art of Greece was suffocated when the entire
coast-line of the Mediterranean came to study the

Turning to the entire body of American painters,
at home and abroad, we find that they constitute at
the present day the one "school" that has already
given to the world the greatest artist since the days
of Rembrandt and Velasquez, — and greater than
either in some respects, as we shall see, — and also
the greatest of living portrait-painters, not to men-
tion a half-dozen more who are recognized inter-
nationally as masters in their chosen fields ; the
one "school" that contains more of sobriety, more
of sanity, more of youthful vigor and virility, more
of indomitable energy and perseverance, more of
promise and assurance of mighty achievement than



all the schools of all the other nations taken to-

If the world is destined to see the modern equiv-
alent of ancient Athens, it will be somewhere within
the confines of North America.

The countries of the Old World have had their
opportunities, and the tide of progress in its circuit
of the globe is already lapping the shores of the
Western continent.

In temperament the typical American lies about
midway between the stolidity of the Englishman
and the volatility of the Frenchman. He has much
of the dogged perseverance of the former, with a
large element of the facility and versatility of the
latter ; he is steadfast in the pursuit of his ideals,
and at the same time quick to adopt new and im-
proved methods for attaining his ends ; he has an
Englishman's tenacity of conviction and much of a
Frenchman's brilliancy of expression. As compared
with an Englishman the American appears more
than half French ; as compared with a French-
man he seems essentially English, It is this com-
bination of earnest convictions, profound belief in
self and country, sobriety, perseverance, tenacity of
purpose, stolid endurance, with inventiveness, origi-
nality, irresistible impulsiveness, dash and brilliancy
in execution, that assures to the future of North
America the noblest of human achievements.

For the present the strength and resources of the
country are absorbed in the production of wealth ;
but soon the people will tire of this pursuit, and the


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

accumulated wealth of nation, States, cities, and in-
dividuals will turn to the encouragement of things
beautiful in not only art and literature, but in the
long-neglected handicrafts, — the crafts that make
instead of destroying men.

At the World's Exposition of 1893, in Chicago,
Whistler's paintings hung, where they rightfully be-
longed, in the American section. Though far and
away superior to anything in the entire section, and
conspicuous above everything near for their exquisite
beauty, still it cannot be gainsaid that of all the sec-
tions of that exhibition the American was the only
one which would contain Whistler's work without
the contrast being so marked as to be absolutely
destructive. That they could not hang with entire
fitness among the English pictures even the English
would admit ; that their sober harmonies were dis-
tinctively at variance with the brilliant and super-
ficial qualities of the French pictures was apparent
to even the unpractised eye. "The Yellow Buskin"
and "The Fur Jacket," to mention no others, could
hang in only one place, and that was where they
were put, — in the main hall of the American section,
flanked and confronted by American work.

Not that the pictures about them equalled in
merit, — that is not the question ; but they were suf-
ficiently akin to constitute an harmonious environ-

Art is simply a mode of expression, and the
highest, truest, noblest art is the reflection of the
5 6s


best there is in a people. It follows, therefore, that
the art of any race or people must exhibit the racial
characteristics. A painting, for instance, belongs
first to the man who painted it and bears on its
face so many marks of his individuality that not
only he but others recognize it as his. Secondly,
the painting belongs to the race or people with
which the artist is identified, for the very traits
which distinguish him as an American, or an Eng-
lishman, or a Frenchman from all other nationalities
inevitably make themselves felt in the work, and
distinguish it not only specifically from all other
canvases, but generically from the work of other
peoples, schools, epochs, eras, etc.

A man may change his allegiance and live in
foreign lands, but he cannot change his blood. If a
Chinaman, he will remain a Chinaman, no matter
where he lives ; if an American, he will remain an
American, though, like many of our mess-of-potage
citizens, he may remain a bastard American in the
endeavor to become an adopted Englishman.

The finer the art the more universal its qualities.
And yet there is no poem and no picture that is
absolutely without the marks of its master ; and the
marks of the master mean the marks of his race, —
in fact, the racial indications are inversely in number
to those of the individual ; the deeper a man buries
his personality in his work the stronger the indica-
tions of his race. Shakespeare so lost himself that
his personal characteristics nowhere appear in his


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

great plays, and a conception of the poet's person-
ality could not be formed from a reading of the
lines — so universal was his genius ; yet his poetry is
essentially and everlastingly English, — far more con-
spicuously English than the poetry of lesser men
who sing about England and things English. It is
more English than Chaucer, more English than
Spencer, more English than Browning, Tennyson,
or Swinburne ; it breathes more fully and more truly
the spirit of the English people in their greatest
days than any poetry ever uttered by the English

The greater the man, the more completely does
he express his people. It takes a great race to pro-
duce a great man ; and once produced, he is ever-
lastingly linked with his tribe.

But greatness implies the suppression of the petty,
including all petty resemblances ; therefore, a man by
the universal qualities of his genius may seem to
belong to the world, whereas in truth he is but
the expression of the best there is in his country-

Rembrandt suppressed all provincialisms and
seemed to etch and paint for mankind rather than
for a limited public in Holland ; and yet to the last
he was simply the greatest of Dutch artists. And
because he was so essentially and truly Dutch he is
one of the world's great artists ; in the chorus of
the world's proud voices there is no mistaking his



Velasquez is at the same time the least Spanish of
painters and the most Spanish of artists. Suppress-
ing all eccentricities of time and place, he rose to
universal heights, and the world claims him as its
own ; and yet his fame depends upon the fact that
he was from first to last a Spaniard, — a Spaniard in
precisely the sense that Cervantes was the expres-
sion of inarticulate forces behind him. Deriving
more or less help from his contemporaries, and from
this quarter and that, from the visit of Rubens and
from his own journey to Italy, he, after all, was the
achievement of the Spanish people in painting. He
was not an Italian, he was not a Frenchman, he was
not a Dutchman, — he was a Spaniard of the Span-
iards, as Shakespeare was an Englishman of the

Having wandered far afield in the endeavor to
point out the intimate connection between, first, a
man and his work, — which connection every one
admits, — and, secondly, between the race and the
work, — a connection which is not so readily per-
ceived, — let us return to Whistler, whose work fur-
nishes proof positive of what has been said.

It is commonly taken for granted that if a man
lives and studies and works abroad for many years
he loses his individuality and becomes in some mys-
terous manner the offspring of the country where
he works. It is assumed that American painters
residing in Rome become more or less Italian ; that
those residing in Paris become more or less French ;


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

that those residing in London become more or less
English ; while those who move restlessly from place to
place become more or less of characterless cosmopo-
lites. All of which is true inversely to the real strength
and genius of the artist. A weak man is swerved by
this influence and that and — chameleon like — takes
on the hues of his surroundings, but a strong man
simply absorbs and assimilates without in the slight-
est degree losing his individuality. Unhappily,
many American artists residing abroad possess so
little stamina, so little of real character, so little of
genius, that they are — like topers — dependent upon
the daily stimulus afforded by the manifold art
activities about them ; they never get out of school,
but remain helplessly dependent upon teachers and
copy-books. The annual Salon, like a college com-
mencement day, is their great incentive ; their petty
exhibitions are so many field-days necessary to
sustain childish enthusiasm.

Happily, all do not yield to those influences, and
no two yield in precisely the same degree, — the ex-
tent to which individuality is lost depending upon
the weakness of the man. A poor, weak, wishy-
washy American quickly falls into the habit of paint-
ing pictures after the manner of those about him,
and his mannerisms out-Herod Herod ; others, with
more character, yield less to their environment ;
while the chosen few simply absorb whatever of
good they find, and without yielding a jot of their
individuality, without swerving to the right or to the
left, go on producing after their own fashion things



which belong to them and the race that produced

For more than forty years Whistler was the con-
spicuous example of the last-named class, — a class
so small that it included besides himself — no others.

Great as certain of our American artists residing
abroad undoubtedly are, good as many of these
surely are, creditable on the whole as all are to
American art, there is not one whose work does not
betray the influences of his environment ; there is
not one who has not sacrificed something of his origi-
nality, something of his strength, something of his
native force and character on strange altars, saving
and excepting, always. Whistler.

The most that men have ventured to say is that
he was influenced by Velasquez, though he himself
has said he never visited Madrid, — a statement many
insist cannot be true ; others say he has been in-
fluenced by Japanese art, — but Velasquez and the art
of Japan are far from French or English art of the
nineteenth century ; and the assertion that he was
influenced by either is a confession that he lived un-
scathed amidst his surroundings.

Back of the art of Japan is the purer art of China ;
and to that source must we go if we seek the factors
that influenced Whistler, for he loved the porcelain
and pottery of China long before they were collected
by the museums and amateurs of Europe.

"When no one cared for it," he said, "I used to
find in Amsterdam the most beautiful blue-and-


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

white china. That was a good many years ago ; it
is all gone now."

Old Delft did not inspire him with any enthu-
siasm. "Crude, crude, crude."

This art of China, as reflected and elaborated in
that of Japan, influenced him, — of that there can be
no doubt, — and he recognized what was good in
Japanese art before others gave it any attention.

The art of Velasquez had its due weight, for he
loved the work of the Spanish master ; and if he never
visited Madrid, perhaps it was because he feared
falling too much under its influence. But he went
frequently to the Louvre, and invariably to the
little " Infanta," which he would look at long and
earnestly, and to Titian's " Man with the Glove,"
which was a favorite, and to certain Rembrandts,
and to Franz Kals, and a few, a very few others, —
the gems of the collection, — ignoring completely
the pictures which commonly attract, never once
glancing up at the huge canvases by Rubens and
his pupils ; in fact, so far as he was concerned the
walls might have been bare save for a half-dozen
masterpieces ; and these he really did love. There
was no mistaking his attitude towards them. It was
one of reverential affection. He appreciated a
really good thing, whether he or some one else had
done it, and he hated above everything sham and
pretence and foolish display. To him a picture the
size of one's hand, if well and conscientiously done,
was just as important as a full-length portrait.

The Italian masters influenced him, for he often



spoke of them, of the wonderful effects they ob-
tained with such simple materials and such straight-
forward methods ; their mastery of color influenced
him, and he sought, so far as possible, to discover
the pigments and the methods they used.

Those are the factors which helped to make Whist-
ler, — the purest art ; he was not influenced by what
went on about him, or by what was said about him.
So little did he care what others were doing or how
they did it that his very brushes and pigments were
different ; and his methods were so peculiarly his own
that no one painted at all like him, and his fellow-
artists looked on in amazement.

The wave of impressionism which submerged all
Paris in the very midst of his career left him unaf-
fected, — for his art was an older and truer impres-
sionism, an impressionism that did not depend upon
the size of brushes or the consistency of pigments.

A visitor once said to him :

" Mr. Whistler, it seems to me you do not use
some of those very expensive and brilliant colors
which are in vogue nowadays."

"No." And he diligently worked away at his
palette. "I can't afford to, — they are so apt to
spoil the picture."

" But they are effective."

" For how long ? A year, or a score of years, per-
haps ; but who can tell what they will be a century
or five centuries hence. The old masters used sim-
ple pigments which they ground themselves. I try


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

to use what they used. After all, it is not so much
what one uses as the way it is used."

Much of the foregoing argument concerning the
Americanism of Whistler and his art may seem to
be contradicted by his own express utterances.

For did he not say in his "Ten o'Clock" ?

" Listen ! There never was an artistic period."

"There never was an art-loving nation."

And he pointed out how the man who, " differing
from the rest," who "stayed by the tents with the
women and traced strange devices with a burnt stick
upon a gourd, . . . who took no joy in the ways of
his brethren, . . . who perceived in nature about
him curious curvings, as faces are seen in the fire,
this dreamer apart, was the first artist."

"And presently there came to this man another —
and, in time, others — of like nature, chosen by the
gods ; and so they worked together ; and soon they
fashioned, from the moistened earth, forms re-
sembling the gourd. And with the power of crea-
tion, the heirloom of the artist, presently they went
beyond the slovenly suggestion of nature, and the
first vase was born, in beautiful proportion."

And the toilers and the heroes were athrist, " and
all drank alike from the artist's goblets, fashioned
cunningly, taking no note the while of the crafts-
man's pride, and understanding not his glory in his
work ; drinking at the cup, not from choice, not from
a consciousness that it was beautiful, but because,
forsooth, there was no other !"



"And the people questioned not, and had nothing
to say in the matter."

" So Greece was in its splendor, and art reigned
supreme, — by force of fact, not by election, — and
there was no meddling by the outsider."

Again he says :

"The master stands in no relation to the moment
at which he occurs a monument of isolation, hinting
at sadness, having no part in the progress of his

Those are the propositions which called out the
reply — positive and intemperate — from Swinburne,^
and so estranged the two, and which to this day
have proved huge stumbling-blocks in the paths
of those who try to understand Whistler.

For the world does believe that there have been
"artistic periods," that there have been "art-loving
nations," that in some mysterious manner the master
does stand in " relation to the moment at which he

And the world is right ; though it does not neces-
sarily follow that Whistler was wrong in the particu-
lar views he had in mind when he uttered his epi-
grammatic propositions.

In one sense it is undoubtedly true that the
master does seem to stand apart, " a mouument of
isolation," that he does seem to happen without any
causal connection with either parents or country,

^ Fortnightly Review, June, 1888.

OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

time or place, — for who could have fortold the great-
ness of Shakespeare from an acquaintance with those
obscure individuals his father and mother, or from
a knowledge of Stratford and its environs? Who
could have predicted the triumphs of Napoleon
from a study of his Corsican forbears, or the strange
genius of Lincoln from his illiterate progenitors and
humble surroundings, or the elemental force of
Walt Whitman from his ancestry and American con-
ditions ?

No one ; and yet there is the profound conviction
that each of these men, like every great man, —
prophet, king, statesman warrior, poet, or painter, —
appeared, not miraculously, but as the inevitable
result of irresistible forces ; that tlie brilliant man
is, after all, the son of his parents and the child of
his times.

In the mystery of generation two stupidities fused
in the alembic of maternity produce a genius.

The occasion does not create, but calls forth its
master. Every war has its great general, every crisis
its great leader, and in the world of art great artists
respond to meet the requirements of the hour.

The bent of a nation determines the occupations
of her sons, — towards war and conquest, towards
peace and industry, towards things artistic or things
commercial, all as the case may be.

It is not the birth of the poet that turns the nation
from commerce to poetry ; it is rather the imper-
ceptible development of the nation itself in the direc-



tion of the ideal that calls into activity — not being —
the poet.

Neither race nor nation can by its fiat create a
poet ; but it can by its encouragement stimulate his
activity and rouse him to his best. It could not
create a Keats ; but it might have urged him on to
even greater heights than he attained, — for who can
doubt that his clear, pure crystalline song was stifled
for lack of appreciation ?

Now and then a genius, such as Carlyle, such as
Whistler, such as Whitman, asserts himself in spite
of all rebuffs, for each of these men pursued his
chosen path regardless of all revilings ; but, so sus-
ceptible is genius to encouragement and discourage-
ment, that, for the most part, it droops before the
withering blast of adverse criticism, and only those
of hearts so strong and wills so stubborn that op-
position inflames them to greater efforts make head-
way against the world.

It was no one genius that made the monuments
and literature of Greece, the art of China and
Japan, the paintings of Italy, the Gothic cathedrals
of France and England ; it was the demand for all
these things and their appreciation by those who
could not do them that called forth and encouraged
the doers.

The first artist may neglect the chase and the
field and remain by the tents idly tracing strange
designs upon gourds ; but unless those who till the


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

soil and bring in the food see his decorated gourds
and like them, and prefer them to the plain ones
which abound, and are willing to give him food and
shelter for his work, he will not remain by the tents
very long, and his artistic career will be foreshortened
by necessity.

But if the toilers and the hunters like the dec-
orated gourds, and the demand for them increases,
others of the tribe who have talent for designing
and decoration will join the master and imitate his
work, and every now and then a pupil will prove a
genius and surpass the "first artist," and art will
grow and art-products will multiply, but only so
long as the rest of the tribe are willing to work and
toil and to exchange the necessaries of life for
paintings and carvings and pottery ; and the greater
the demand, the keener the desire of the people for
decorated things in preference to those that are
plain and cheap, the larger will be the chance of
uncovering now and then a genius, until, as with the
Greeks, the effective demand for things beautiful,
for poetry, music, painting, sculpture, and archi-
tecture, becomes so great that we have an artistic
people and an art-epoch, — that is to say, a people

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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 4 of 18)