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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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that is only too glad to encourage and support a
large number of artists of every kind, and an era
when of a given population an unusually large per-
centage is devoted to the service of the beautiful.

The master does seem — as Whistler says — to come
unbidden ; but he will not remain long, and others

77



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

will not follow in his footsteps, unless he arouses at
least sufficient appreciation to give him life.

The future of art — of literature, of the drama,
and of all the handicrafts — in America depends not
upon the coming of a genius, but upon the growth
of an effective and irresistible demand for good
things ; when that demand is sufficiently imperative,
a Phidias, an Angelo, a Shakespeare will respond,
for genius is latent everywhere.

The sudden degradation of the arts in Japan within
the memory of man was not due to the disappear-
ance of the talent and genius which for nearly a
thousand years had been steadily — almost methodi-
cally — producing things beautiful, but it was due to
the suppression of the feudal system, of those great
lords who from the beginning had been the sure
patrons of art and supporters of artists, and to the
throwing open of ports to the commerce of the
world and the introduction of the commercial spirit.

The genius for the creation of beautiful things
remains, — for a people does not change in the
twinkling of an eye, — but the talent is no longer in
demand, or, in many cases, is diverted to the more
profitable pursuits of the hour.



78



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler



IV

Early Days in Paris and Venice — Eic/migs, Litho-
graphs, and Water-Colors — '^Propositions'' and
'' Ten d Clockr

After leaving the coast survey, Whistler went to
England, and thence to Paris in 1855, and entered
the studio of Charles Gabriel Gleyre, where he
remained two years.

Beyond the fact that Whistler was for a time in
his studio, Gleyre has not much claim on fame.
There could not have been anything in common be-
tween the master and his pupil, for he was academic
to the last degree, " Not even by a tour in the
East did he allow himself to be led away from the
classic manner ; and as the head of a great leading
studio he recognized it as the task of his life to hand
the traditions of the school of Ingres," whom Whist-
ler used to call a "Bourgeois Greek," "on to the
present." He "was a man of sound culture, who
during a sojourn in Italy, which lasted five years,
had examined Etruscan vases and Greek statues
with unintermittent zeal, studied the Italian classics,
and copied all Raphael. Having come back to
Paris, he never drew a line without having first
assured himself how Raphael would have pro-
ceeded."

However, there must have been a certain com-

79



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

bative streak in his character which did appeal to
Whistler, for in 1849 he quarreled with the Salon
over the success of Courbet, and thereafter sent his
pictures to Swiss exhibitions.

Whistler's first commission grew out of an ac-
quaintance made at West Point. At one of the
commencement festivities he met a charming young
girl, a Miss Sally Williams, and her father. Captain
Williams.

While a student in Paris, the pretty daughter and
the bluff old captain called on him, and the captain
said :

" Mr. Whistler, we are over here to see Paris, and
I want you to show us the pictures."

Nothing loath, Whistler took them to the Louvre,
and after they had walked a mile or two the captain
stopped before some pictures that pleased him and
asked :

" Do you suppose you could copy these pictures?"

"Possibly."

"Then, I wish you would copy this, and that,
and that," pointing out three paintings. "When
they are finished, deliver them to my agent, and he
will pay you your price."

Whistler made the copies, and received the first
money he ever earned with his brush.

One of these canvases, a copy of an Ingres,
turned up in New York a year or two ago. It bore
Whistler's signature, but was so atrocious — imagine
a combination of Ingres and Whistler — that even

80



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

the dealer doubted its authenticity ; but when a
photograph was shown Whistler, he recognized the
picture and told the story.

Of these early days many stories are told, but
they are all more or less apocryphal. It is as nat-
ural for stories to cluster about Whistler as for bar-
nacles to cling to a ship. He told so many good ones
that, as with Lincoln, innumerable good, bad, and
indifferent which he did not tell are attributed to
him, and thousands are told about him which have
slight foundations in fact.

It is well nigh impossible to sift the true from the
false, — a thing Whistler himself did not attempt, —
though it is possible to sift the wheat from the chaff]
the inane, insipid, and pointless from the bright and
crisp.

Any man can vouch for a story, but who can
vouch for a good story ? The story-teller ? Heaven
forbid ! By all the rules of evidence the testimony
of so interested a witness is inadmissible. The bet-
ter the story, the more doubtful its authenticity, —
its formal, its literal authenticity. The better the
teller, the more daring his liberties with prosaic de-
tails. A good story-teller is a lapidary who receives
his material in the rough and polishes it into a jewel
by removing three-fourths of its substance ; or, under
pressure of necessity, he deftly manufactures paste.
To be without stories is the story-teller's crime ; a
wit without witticisms is no wit at all, hence the
strain upon veracity.

6 8i



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

Happily, the world conspires to help both wit and
story-teller by supplying during their lives, and in
great abundance after their deaths, stories and wit-
ticisms without end. Give a man the reputation of
being a humorist, and all he has to do is to sit dis-
creetly silent and watch his reputation grow. If he
really deserves his reputation, he may add to his
fame by fresh activities ; but if he is something of a
sham, as most wits are, he would better leave his
sayings to the imaginations of others.

Whistler's sense of humor was so keen, his wit so
sharp, his facility in epigram and clever sayings so
extraordinary, that what are genuinely his are better
than anything others have said about him ; therefore,
it is a pity some one has not jotted down first hand
some of the good things that constantly fell from his
lips. Perhaps some one has, and his life and sayings
will yet appear with all the marks of authority and
authenticity.

But his sharp and exceedingly terse sayings often
suffer greatly in the telling, frequently to the loss of
all point and character. The following instance is
in point :

A group of society women were once discussing
the graces and accomplishments of Frederic Leigh-
ton.

"So handsome."

" Plays divinely."

"Perfectly charming."

"Sings."

82



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

"And is so great a sculptor."

Whereupon Whistler, who was of the party, tim-
idly advanced the query :

"Paints a little, too, does he not?"

That is one version of an old and well-worn Whist-
ler anecdote, and other versions, which are at all
characteristic, do not vary in more than two or three
words.

See what the story becomes in the mouth of the
incompetent.^

"One evening a dozen of us were sitting in Broughton's
reception-room, waiting for our carriages to be announced,
and Whistler was sitting by himself on a lounge on the other
side of the room. We were discussing the versatile talents of
Frederic Leighton, one of the leading painters of England,
and afterwards president of the Royal Academy. One spoke
of his astonishing linguistic accomplishments : he could ex-
press himself in every European tongue and in several Ori-
ental ones. Another mentioned his distinguished merit as an
architect : he was building an addition to his studio which
was like a vision of Aladdin or Haroun Al Rashid. Another
called attention to his ability in sculpture : a group of an
athlete and a serpent was then exhibiting in the Academy,
which challenged the works of antique art. Another men-
tioned his talent as an orator : no man in London could
make a better after-dinner speech. Another praised his per-
sonal beauty and grace and his athletic prowess. At length
there fell a silence, because all of us had contributed his or
her mite of eulogy, — all of us, that is, with the exception of
Whistler, reclining on his elbow at the other side of the
room.

" Bya common impulse we all glanced over at him : what



^ The Independent, November 2, 1899.
83



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

would he say ? He partly raised himself from his lolling
attitude and reached for his crush hat on the sofa. 'Yes,'
he added, slowly and judicially, as if benevolently confirming
all the praise we had poured forth ; and then, as if by an
after-thought, calling our attention to a singular fact not
generally known, 'Yes, and he can paint, too !' "

After all the verbosity, padding, and penny-a-
lining, the point is missed by attributing to Whistler
the positive averment that Leighton could paint.

Small wonder that the writer in the next para-
graph confesses :

"My own crude first attempts to understand Whistler's
paintings were dismal failures ; and of course 1 imagined that
the failure was in the painting, and not in myself. I could
see no beauty in them : the drawing was indeterminate ;
the colors were not pretty ; the pictures all seemed un-
finished."

It is less difficult than one would suppose to recall
things said by Whistler, for he would repeat a good
thing and was always polishing.

For instance, in his controversy with the critics he
originally said that "Ruskin's high-sounding, empty
things . . . flow of language that would, could he
hear it, give Titian the same shock of surprise that
was Balaam's when the first great critic proffered his
opinion."

A very literal correspondent wrote to the papers
that the "ass was right," and quoted the Bible in
proof

Nothing daunted. Whistler acknowledged the hit,
saying, " But, I fancy, you will admit that this is the

84



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

only ass on record who ever did see the Angel of
the Lord, and that we are past the age of miracles."
Years after, in referring to the matter, he im-
proved his reply to, "But I fancy you will admit
that this is the only ass on record that ever was
right, and the age of miracles is past"



His love of epigram was so great that nothing
which was terse or pointed escaped his ears or
fled his memory.

One day, while lunching with a friend who knew
something about the habits and eccentricities of
good wine, Whistler was telling about the peculiari-
ties of Henry James, how James would drag a
slender incident through several pages until it was
exhausted, whereupon his friend casually remarked :

"The best of wine is spoiled by too small a spig-
got."

Immediately alert, Whistler said :

"What's that? what's that you said? Did you
get that out of Shakespeare ?"

"Not at all ; it is simply a physical fact that if
you let good wine dribble through a small spiggot
you lose its fragrance and character."

" God bless me, but I believe you are right ; and
it's a good saying, — it's James to a — drop."

No doubt there are many still living who knew
Whistler in those early Paris days, but if so, few
have so far made known their reminiscences. One

85



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

fellow-student describes one of the places they
used to dine inexpensively as follows : ^

"In Paris, in the fifties, there existed in the Rue de la
Michandiere what appeared to be an ordinary Paris creamery.
In the front shop were sold milk, butter, and eggs. Over
the door was the usual painted tin coffee-pot, indicating that
caffe au lait, and eggs, butter, and rolls could be obtained in
the back room.

' ' The place was kept by Madame Busque, who had been
a governess in a private family in the south of France, and
having saved a little money, had come to Paris and opened
a creamery. The very day she opened her shop, Mr. Chase,
Paris correspondent of the New York Times, passing by, was
attracted by the clean look of the place, and stepped in for
his early breakfast of coffee and rolls. The little back room
contained two round tables, and beyond was the kitchen with
the usual charcoal broiler and little furnaces. Chase was so
pleased that he came again, and getting acquainted with
Madame, who was well educated and very ladylike and
anxious to please, arranged for a dinner at 6. 30 for a party
of four. Everything was good and so well served that soon
she had a regular custom of American residents, — literary
men, artists, and students of all kinds, art, scientific, literary,
and medical, — and soon the place became famous. Ameri-
can dishes were introduced, — mince and pumpkin pies and
buckwheat cakes. It was not easy to reproduce these things
in Paris. The pumpkin pie was a trouble. Madame was
told how to make it by a man who only knew how it looked
and tasted, and who neglected to mention the crust ; and as
Madame had no knowledge of pies in general, she served the
first pumpkin pie as a soup in a tureen. Just at that time
came in a bright young woman, introduced by one of the



^ Major W. L. B. Jenney, in the American Architect, Jan-
uary I, 1898.

86



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

habitues, who offered to come next forenoon and show
Madame Busque how to make a genuine Yankee pumpkin
pie, which she did ; and the pies produced in that httle
creamery were famous and were sent out to Americans all
over Paris. Fine carriages, including that of the American
minister, to the amazement of the neighborhood, would call
for these pies to take home.

"Among the habitues was young Whistler, then an art
student. He was bright, original, and amusing, but gave at
that time no promise of any particular ability as an artist.
His drawing was careless. I remember one of his pictures,
— a woman seated at the piano, a little child playing on
the floor. The piano was so out of drawing that it looked
as if it were falling over. As students are always fond of
guying each other, one said to Whistler, • Hurry and put a
fifth leg under that piano or it will fall and smash the baby.'

" One day, in the Luxembourg, Whistler had his easel in a
crowd with others. They were all at work making copies
from a famous picture that had just been added to the gal-
lery. Whistler would paint a bit, and then rush back to
contemplate what he had done. In one of these mad back-
ward rushes he struck a step-ladder on the top of which was
a painter. Over went step-ladder, painter, and all, and the
painter, trying to save himself, seized the top of his own
canvas and another, pulling them over, easels and all. One
knocked down another, and there was a great crash.
W^histler was in the midst, and his loud voice was heard, as
he sat on the floor, his head protruding through a big canvas
that had fallen on him, using expressions of a vigorous type.
He was seized by the guardian, because, as Whistler was
making the most noise, he assumed that the whole fuss was
due to him. This was quite correct ; but all the painters
coming to his rescue, telling the guardian that it was all an
accident, he let Whistler off.

"He organized a company of French negro minstrels,
writing the songs and stories, and gave a performance which

87



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

was very amusing. Among the habitues at Madame Busque's
was a student from the School of Mines, Vinton, afterwards
Professor of Mining at Columbia College, and during the war
a brigadier-general. He himself told me the following story
in 1866. One night in South CaroHna an officer wandered
into his camp. He sent word to the general by the sergeant
of the guard that he was an officer who had lost his way,
that he asked permission to pass the rest of the night in his
camp, adding that he had known General Vinton when a
student in Paris. General Vinton sent for the officer, whom
he failed to recognize. After some thought he asked the
question, ' Who was the funniest man we knew in Paris ?'
'Whistler,' instantly answered the officer. 'All right,' says
Vinton ; ' take that empty cot ; you are no spy.' "

Among the students he knew in those days were
Degas, Ribot, and Fantin-Latour, whose work every
one knows.

Manet was working up to his best; in 1861 he
painted the " Child with a Sword," now in the
Metropolitan Museum in New York, and altogether
the atmosphere was charged with the strong sulphur
of revolution.

In England the pre-Raphaelites — old and new —
were turning the hands of time backward, in France
the Impressionists were pressing them forward, in
both countries the ferment of change was working.

When only twenty-four years of age, in 1858,
Whistler's first etchings appeared, published by
Delatre, with a dedication to Seymour Haden, his
brother-in-law. In those days the relations between
the two men were very cordial ; unhappily, not so
later, as may be seen in "Gentle Art."

88



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OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

One of Haden's best plates, " Battersea Beach,"
bears in its first state this inscription, " Old Chelsea,
Seymour Haden, 1863, out of Whistler's window,"
and another plate of the same year is entitled,
"Whistler's House, old Chelsea." '

Prior to the publication of the "French Set,"
Whistler had etched three plates, which were cata-
logued as ^

" Early Portrait of Whistler. A young man
bare-headed. An impression on which Whistler
wrote * Early Portrait of Self is in the Avery
collection in the Lenox Library, New York.

"Annie Haden. On the only impression known,
now in Avery collection, Lenox Library, Whistler
wrote, 'Very early ; most probably unique,'

"The Dutchman Holding His Glass. This is
signed 'J. W.,' and but two or three impressions
are in existence."

There must have been many other early attempts
before the "French Set" was formally undertaken,
and possibly other plates and prints will come to light
in the rigorous search that is sure to be made for
everything that he ever did. A plate made while
in the service of the coast survey is in existence, — a
headland embellished with vagrant heads and fig-
ures. Some of the prints are to be seen in collec-
tions.



1 Wedmore, Fine Prints, p. 103.
*Wedmore's Catalogue, pp. 19-20.
89



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

The "French Set" consisted of twelve plates and
an etched title, making thirteen plates in all.

But few copies of the set were printed, and the
original price was two guineas per copy.

It is, of course, quite impracticable to give a com-
plete list of Whistler's etchings, for three hundred
and seventy-two have been duly listed and described,
and it is altogether likely that this number will be
increased to over four hundred.

Whistler himself was very careless about keeping
either a set of proofs or anything like a memoran-
dum of what he had done. In fact, he did not
know what or how many etchings and lithographs
he had made or how many pictures he had painted.

Everything he did was so entirely the pleasure of
the moment, and each new work, whether large or
small, so completely absorbed him, that he quite
forgot the labor of yesterday.

All his life long he would begin things and throw
them aside, and he would finish things and throw
them aside also. To him the only hour of vital
import was the present. To the very last his work
shows the enthusiasm, the even more than youthful
impulsiveness, with which he would begin each new
undertaking.

He could never work at an etching, a lithograph,
or a painting one moment after it became drudgery;
he could never finish a thing simply because he had
begun it, or because some one thought it ought to
be finished ; hence endless misunderstandings with
sitters and patrons, who could not understand why

90



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

what they had bargained for should not be finished
and delivered.

No matter how hard at work on any subject, he
was instantly diverted by another which appealed
to him more ; and he would leave a sitter who was
to pay him a thousand guineas to sketch an Italian
urchin.

Unmethodical to the last degree in all his affairs,
always absorbed in what he had in hand, it is not
surprising that he kept little track of the things he
had done.

The first catalogue of his etchings was published
in London in 1874. It contained about eighty
etchings. In 1886 Mr. Frederick Wedmore cata-
logued two hundred and fourteen, and in 1899 in-
creased the number to two hundred and sixty-eight.

In 1902 a supplement^ to Wedmore's catalogue
brought the number of known prints up to three
hundred and seventy-two.

The "Thames Set," sixteen in number, did not
appear publicly as a "set" until 1871, though made
many years before ; and the very rare early impres-
sions made by Whistler himself are considered far
superior to the prints of 1871 and after.

In 1880 the Fine Arts Society issued the "First
Venice Set" of a dozen plates, and in 1886 Messrs.
Dowdeswell issued a set of twenty-six, known as the
"Twenty-six Etchings."



* Printed by H. Wunderlich & Co., New York.

91



RECOLLECTIONS AND IMPRESSIONS

One who knew him in his early Venice days gives
the following reminiscences : ^

"We were often invited to dine with Whistler, whose
apartment was on the next flight above. He came to our

rooms one day, and said, ' A , I would like you and

B to dine with me to-day. You have such a supply of

newspapers, please bring several with you, as I have neither
papers nor table-cloth, and they will answer the purpose
quite well.' I did as he requested, and surprised and
amused was our host when I called his attention to a column
and a half of ' Whistler stories ' in one of the Boston papers,
which was serving as our table-cloth.

" One day I called on Whistler when he was engaged in
decorating the interior of a house. He lay on his back on
the floor, and the handle of the brush was a fish-pole which
reached to the ceiling.

"Once a year, in the summertime, it is the custom of
Venetians to go to the Lido, a surf-bathing resort, to see the
sun rise. They leave in the evening, in gondolas, accompa-
nied with the inevitable mandolin and guitar, and some-
times with an upright piano. The excursionists make a
night of it, and Whistler was one of the number. Next day
he wished to make a study from our window, the approach
to the Grand Canal. Leaving him for a time by himself,
upon my return there was a striking study of the view on
the easel, and Whistler before the easel asleep. The brushes
had fallen from his grasp, and, well charged with fresh
paint, were resting . in his lap. As he wore white duck
trousers, the effect can well be imagined.

"I have often heard him use the word 'pretty,' when
looking at a study that had no particular redeeming feature
to recommend it. Not wishing to wound the feelings of the
artist, he would remark, with that peculiar drawl of his,
' That is pretty, yes, very pretty.'



^ W. S. Adams, in the Springfield Republican.

92



OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

" One day he called upon two students. On the wall was
the study of a child, most beautifully done by one of them.
Whistler stood before it for a long time in deep admiration,
and then, turning to the art student, said, ' That is away be-
yond yourself. ' Truly it was, for I called again a few days


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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 5 of 18)