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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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afterwards, and the body attached to the beautiful head was
not worthy the brush of a five-years-old child. And I won-
dered how such incongruous things could be.

" Whistler was very loyal to his ' white lock ;' said it was
an inheritance in the family for several generations. He
wore a slouch hat ; and I have watched him on several occa-
sions, before the mirror, where he remained for a long time,
arranging it on his curly hair for the best effect before starting
for the Florian cafe.

' ' And this reminds me that he was in need sometimes of
the wherewithal to procure his coffee. So he called on me
for aid. It was amusing to me, for I had scarcely soldi to
pay for my own, and so I often went without. However, I
could well afford to pay for Whistler's coffee, inasmuch as he
was a fine linguist, and I called on him to assist me in the
battle I had with the padrona on two occasions. The mer-
cenary woman was completely nonplussed, for Whistler
waxed eloquent in the Italian tongue. There was no mis-
take, he was in dead earnest, for his gesticulations and ex-
cited tones of voice assured it, and my case was won.

" Tintoretto was his ideal artist among the old masters,
and he often spoke most highly of his productions, especially
'The Crucifixion.'

"In the line of pastels he was original, doing them on
ordinary wrapping-paper. They were simply beautiful. I
saw them in a London gallery a few months later, and they
were an inspiration ; so much so that he has had since many
imitators but no equals.

"On one occasion I had a demonstration. We set out
together on a sketching tour of the town. We came suddenly
upon a subject that was very rich in tone — a cooper-shop.



I lost no time getting to work. I threw my sketching-block
flat upon the pavement, and emptied the contents of my box
of water-colors upon it to get the tone quickly. The paper
being well saturated with water, made it an easy matter to
bring forth light from out the deep tone with strips of blotting-
paper. I was not aware of doing anything unusual until I
heard a ' Ha, ha, ha !' which has been called Whistler's
Satanic laugh.

" ' What amuses you, Mr. Whistler ? Why do you laugh ?
Are you making fun of my sketch ?'

" ' Oh, no,' said he, with assurance. • I am admiring the
ingenious way in which you work.'

' ' This to me was high praise, for it came from one who
rarely indulged in praise."

Another, speaking of the same period, says : ^

"I first knew Mr. James McNeill Whistler many years
ago in Venice, when he was quite unknown to fame. He
had lodging at the top of an old palace in the uttermost parts
of the town, and many days he would breakfast, lunch, and
dine off nothing more nutritious than a plateful of polenta or
macaroni. He was just as witty, and gave himself just the
same outrageous but inoffensive airs as afterwards in the
days of his prosperity. He used to go about and do marvel-
lous etchings for which he could find no market, or else only
starvation prices. When he was absolutely obliged to, he
would sell them for what he could get ; but he never lost the
fullest confidence in his own powers ; and, whenever he
could, he preferred to keep them in the expectation — nay,
certainty — of being able to sell them some day at a high

" He used to go roaming about Venice in search of sub-

1 McClure s Magazine, vol. vii. p. 374.

OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

jects for his etchings, and those who know all about it say-
that the charm of his work lies quite as much in the choice
of subjects as in their execution. He used to make a great
deal of mystery about his etching expeditions, and was
rarely prevailed upon to let any one accompany him. If
he did, it was always under the strictest pledge of secrecy.
What was the use, he would ask, of his ferreting out some
wonderful old bridge or archway, and thinking of making it
immortal, if some second-rate painter-man were to come
after him and make it commonplace with his caricatures ?
On the other hand, if some friend of his discovered an ideal
spot, and asked what he thought of it, he would not scruple
for an instant to say, ' Come, now, this is all nonsense, your
trying to do this. It is much too good a subject to be wasted
on you. You'd better let me see what I can do with it.'
And he would be so charming about it, and take his own
superiority so completely for granted, that no one ever
dreamed of refusing him."

The story is told that a woman, some elderly
countess, moved into an apartment immediately
below him. By her noise, fussiness, and goings to
and fro she annoyed him very much, and Whistler
wished her out.

The weather was hot, and one day the countess
put a jar of goldfish on the balcony immediately
beneath his window. During her absence Whistler
tied a bent pin to a thread and caught the fish,
broiled them to a turn, and dropped them back.
Soon the countess returned, and on finding her
goldfish dead, there was a great commotion, and the
next day she packed up and left, saying that Venice
was altogether too hot, — the sun had cooked her
goldfish in their jar.



Of Whistler's etchings Seymour Haden once said
that if he had to part with his Rembrandts or his
Whistlers he would let the former go.

This collection of Haden's came to this country
a few years ago.

An enthusiastic collector says :

' ' I should say of Mr. Whistler that he was an artistic
genius, whose etched work has not been surpassed by any
one, and equalled only by Rembrandt. Comparing the
etching of the two, it should be said of Rembrandt that he
chose greater subjects, — as, for instance, ' Christ Healing the
Sick' and ' The Crucifixion ;' in landscape ' The Three
Trees ;' and in portraiture 'Jan Lutma,' ' Ephraim Bonus,'
and ' The Burgomaster Six.' It certainly cannot be said of
Whistler that he ever etched any plates such as the two first
mentioned. Though Rembrandt's etchings number, say, two
hundred and seventy plates, when a buyer has bought fifty,
he has, no matter how much money he may possess, all the
Rembrandts he wants. In other words, two hundred and
twenty plates are of little value.

"Whistler has catalogued three hundred and seventy-
two plates ; but it would not do to think of stopping the
buying of his prints with fifty, or twice that number, or any
other figures, indeed, short of them all. The difference be-
tween Rembrandt and Whistler might be expressed in this
way : Rembrandt etched many things whose technique was
not the best, whose subjects were abominable, and whose
work generally was far from pleasing. Whistler, on the
contrary, has never etched a plate that would not be a
delight to any connoisseur.

"I have fifty-five Rembrandts, and, with the exception
of half a dozen more, I have all that I want, or all that I
would buy, no matter how much money I had. Of Whist-
lers I have fifty-one, and I carry constantly in my pocket a
list of as many more that I would be glad to buy if I had the


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

chance. I can add that if I succeed in getting the others I
shall then want as many more.

"While Whistler has not equalled Rembrandt in some of
the great things, yet his average is very much higher. The
latter etched scores of plates that do his memory no honor ;
the former, on the contrary, has never etched one that will
not be remembered with pleasure. To etch a fine portrait
is the surest proof of the master ; the human face is the
grandest subject that any artist ever had. I have always
thought that Rembrandt's 'Jan Lutma' was the grand old
man of all etched portraiture, though it is hard to see in
what possible respect it surpasses ' The Engraver,' ' Becquet,'
' Drouet,' and other portraits by Whistler.

"Rembrandt's 'Three Trees,' in landscape, is a greater
plate than Whistler's 'Zaandam,' though the latter is well-
nigh perfection. I know no Rembrandt interior that ap-
proaches Whistler's 'Kitchen,' and I know no exteriors,
unless possibly a few by Meryon, that approach his ' Palaces,'
'The Doorway,' 'Two Doorways,' the 'Embroidered Cur-
tain,' and a score or two of others that are well known to all
lovers of black and white.

"This story was started on Whistler ten or twelve years
ago, and has been on its travels ever since : Some one asked
him which of his etchings he thought the best. His answer
was, 'All of them.' And he told the truth. Of plates that
he thought much of, when I saw him thirteen years ago, the
little ' Marie Loches,' which is another name for the Mayor's
residence, was hung over his desk, and I distinctly remem-
ber that the fine ' Pierrot, ' in the Amsterdam set, was also a
prime favorite of his. Later I have heard it said that the
portrait of 'Annie' he regarded as his finest figure piece."

In February, 1883, he exhibited in London, in the
rooms of the Fine Arts Society, fifty-one etchings
and dry-points.

It was, according to the placards, — and in reaHty,
7 97


— an "Arrangement in Yellow and White," for the
room was white, with yellow mouldings ; the frames
of the prints white, the chairs white, the ottomans
yellow ; the draperies were yellow, with white butter-
flies ; there were yellow flowers in jyellow Japanese
vases on the mantels ; and even the attendants were
clothed in white and yellow. As a French artist re-
marked, "It was a dream of yellow."

This, however, is how it struck some of the angry
critics, who were impaled in the catalogue :

"While Mr. Whistler's staring study in yellow and white
was open to the public we did not notice it, — for notice would
have been advertisement, and we did not choose to advertise

"Of the arrangement in yellow and white, we note that it
was simply an insult to the visitors, — almost intolerable to
any one possessing an eye for color, which Mr. Whistler,
fortunately for him, does not, — and absolutely sickening (in
the strictest sense of the word) to those at all sensitive in
such matters. ' I feel sick and giddy in this hateful room,*
remarked a lady to us after she had been there but a few
minutes. Even the common cottage chairs, painted a coarse
yellow, did not solace the visitors ; and the ornaments on the
mantel-piece, something like old bottle-necks, only excited a
faint smile in the sickened company. ' ' ^

The sea-sick lady was probably an invention of
the writer.

Another, apparently somewhat less susceptible to
the " sickening" effects of yellow, simply says :

^ Knowledge, April 5, 1883, p. 208.

OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

" Mr. Whistler has on view at the Fine Art Society's some
half-a-hundred etchings ; but it was not to see these only
that he invited his friends, and many fine people besides,
last Saturday. In the laudable effort for a new sensation,
he had been engaging in literature ; and a grave servant,
dressed in yellow and white (to suit the temporary decora-
tion of the walls during the show) pressed into the hands of
those who had come in all innocence to see the etchings a
pamphlet in which Mr. Whistler's arrangements had ex-
tended to an arrangement of critics." i

The catalogue which stirred the ire of the critics
was an innocent Httle thing in brown-paper cover
containing a Hst of the prints ; but beneath each was
a Hne or two from the critics, and they were all there
in outspoken condemnation of the work of the man
who is now placed, by even the critics, on a plane
with Rembrandt. Some have since confessed their
errors in print and begged for the mantle of charity.

On the title-page appeared :

" Out of their own mouths shall ye judge them."
And here, as an example, is what he printed be-
neath "No. 51, Lagoon; Noon." In mercy the
names of the critics are omitted.

• ' Years ago James Whistler was a person of high promise. ' '
" What the art of Mr. Whistler yields is a tertium quid.'"
"All of which gems, I am sincerely thankful to say, I

cannot appreciate."

"As we have hinted, the series does not represent any

Venice that we much care to remember ; for who wants to

^ The Academy, February 24, 1883, p. 139.


remember the degradation of what has been noble, the foul-
ness of what has been fair ?' '
" Disastrous failures."

" Failures that are complete and failures that are partial."
"A publicity rarely bestowed upon failures at all."

Whereupon Whistler brought the catalogue to a
close with these scriptural sentences :

"Therefore is judgment far from us, neither doth justice
overtake us ; we wait for light, but behold obscurity ; for
brightness, but we walk in darkness."

' ' We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if
we had no eyes ; we stumble at noonday as in the night."

" We roar all, like bears."

Whistler's manner of arraigning his critics was his
own. No one else could compile such delightful bits
of literature as were those catalogues he issued from
time to time ; but the idea of publishing adverse
criticism with the work criticised was not new.

To his first edition of " Sartor Resartus" Carlyle —
Whistler's neighbor in Chelsea — printed as an ap-
pendix the letter of condemnation which Murray
the publisher received from his literary adviser and
which led to the rejection of the manuscript.

The scheme is not without advantages, — it amuses
the reader and confounds the critic, to which ends
books and paintings are created.

How the galled jades winced may be gathered
from the following mild comments :

" Mr. Whistler's catalogue, however, is our present game.
He takes for motto, ' Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel I'


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

But Mr. Whistler mistakes his vocation. He is no butterfly.
He might be compared, perhaps, to a bird, — the bird that
can sing but won't. If one judged, however, from some of
his etchings, one would say a spider was nearer his mark.
But a butterfly ! the emblem of all that is bright and beauti-
ful in form and color ! Daniel Lambert might as reason-
ably have taken the part of the Apothecary in ' Romeo and
Juliet,' or Julia Pastrana have essayed the role of Imogen.

' ' Criticism is powerless with him in many different ways.
It is powerless to correct his taste for wilfully drawing ill.
If a school-girl of ten showed such a picture of a human
being as this (referring to illustration), for instance, we might
criticise usefully enough. We might point out that no human
being (we suppose the thing is intended for a human being,
but it may be meant for a rag-bag) ever had such features or
such shape. But of what use would it be to tell Mr. Whist-
ler as much? He knows it already, only he despises the
public so much that he thinks it will do well enough for them.
' ' Again, criticism is powerless to explain what was meant
by some such figure as this, in No. 33. The legs we can
especially answer for, while the appendages which come
where a horse has his feet and pasterns are perfect tran-
scripts — they are things we never could forget. We have
not the faintest idea what they really are. We would not
insult Mr. Whistler by supposing he tried to draw a horse
with the customary equine legs, and so failed as to produce
these marvels. Perhaps Dr. Wilson knows of some animal
limbed thus strangely.

"It is because of such insults as these to common sense
and common understanding, and from no ill-will we bear
him, that we refuse seriously to criticise such work as Mr.
Whistler has recently brought before the public. Whatever
in it is good adds to his offence, for it shows the offence to be
wilful, if not premeditated. ' ' ^

1 Knowledge, April 6, 1883, pp. 208, 209.



Poor etchings, — condemned for their virtues, con-
demned for their faults, — there is no health in them.

And these and many similar things were written,
only twenty years ago, of the greatest etchings the
world has known since the days of Rembrandt.

When one thinks of the obscurity of Rembrandt
to the day of his death, and how little his work was
known for long after, of the passing of Meryon with-
out recognition, it must be conceded that Whistler is
coming into his own amazingly fast.

Senefelder discovered the process, but Whistler
perfected the art of lithography. It was not until
1877, twenty years after he began etching, that he
made his first lithographs.

There had been many before him, but none like

During the first half of the century the process
was in great vogue in France, and men like Ingres,
Millet, Corot, and Delacroix tried the facile stone.

One can readily understand how so fascinating a
process appealed to Whistler, and the wonder is that
he did not attempt it earlier.

The use of transfer-paper, whereby the artist is
enabled to make his drawing when and where he
pleases upon the paper, instead of being hampered
by the heavy stone, has greatly advanced the art,
though drawing on the stone possesses certain ad-
vantages and attractions over the paper.


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Not many years ago Whistler was called as an
expert witness in a case which involved the ques-
tion whether the use of transfer-paper was lithog-
raphy. The result of the case is of no consequence.
While on the stand, he turned to the judge, and
said :

" May I be permitted to explain, my lord, to these
gentlemen (the jury) why we are all here?"

"Certainly not," answered the court ; "we are all
here because we cannot help it."

The witty ruling of the court deprived those
present of remarks which would have been not only
to the point but greatly amusing.

It was in this case that an artist who had written
many fine things about Whistler and his work ap-
peared as a witness on the other side, and in cross-
examining the great painter, counsel called attention
to one of the complimentary things that had been
written (" Mr. Whistler's almost nothings are price-
less"), and asked, "You don't dissent to that, do
you, Mr. Whistler?"

Whistler smiled, and replied, " It is very simple

and very proper that Mr. should say that sort

of a thing, but I attach no importance to it."

And it is really true that no man ever enjoyed
more having nice things said about his work, and no
man ever attributed less importance to either favor-
ble or unfavorable comments. He accepted both as
a matter of course and of no consequence ; neither
he nor his work was affected in the slightest



In 1896 he exhibited some seventy lithographs in
the rooms of the Fine Arts Society, and they were
a revelation of the possibilities of the process in the
hands of a master of line.

The Way catalogue, now out of print, contained
one hundred and thirty, purporting to cover those
printed down to and including 1896.

To this list must be added at least eight more
which are well known, and possibly others.

There are, therefore, in existence nearly four hun-
dred etchings and dry-points by Whistler, and prob-
ably not less than one hundred and fifty lithographs,
— a large volume of work for one man, even if he
produced nothing else.

Stress is here laid upon the mere volume of his
work to meet some remarkable views which have
been put forth concerning him and to correct the
popular impression that his controversies diverted
him from his art.

He was but sixty-nine when he died. His first
etchings appeared in 1857-58. For the remainder of
his life he averaged twelve plates and lithographs a
year, — one a month ; and of this great number, it is
conceded by conservative experts, the percentage of
successful plates and stones is much larger than that
of any of his great predecessors. In fact, there are no
failures. Some of the plates were more sketchy and
of slighter importance than others, but every one
is the genuine expression of the artist's mood at the
moment of execution, and precious accordingly.


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Not many years ago there was in a certain city an
exhibition of the shght but pretty work of a famous
French illustrator. By his grace, and especially by
his happy facility in the drawing of children in
checked frocks and gray or brown or blue stockings
and stubby shoes, the work attracted attention, and,
as always happens with the pretty and the novel,
aroused an enthusiasm quite out of proportion to its
real merit.

Two men fell into a dispute over the merits of the
little drawings, one siding with the throng and main-
taining they were great, the other insisting they
were simply pretty, — too pretty to be good and
really quite hard and mechanical in execution, — in
fact, quite inconsequential as art.

"Look," said he, "at this figure of a child. See
how the outline is painfully traced in black and then
the colors filled in as mechanically and methodically
as if a stencil had been used. What would a Jap
say to that?"

" He would say it is fine. It is Japanese in color
and motive."

" About as Japanese as a colored illustration in a
modern magazine." The discussion became heated.

Oddly enough, at that moment a Japanese expert,
who was crossing the country on his way to Europe
to catalogue some collections, entered the room, and
he was appealed to for his opinion of the drawing in
question. In broken English he said :

" It is — very — pretty, very pretty ; but — I not
know how you say it, — but it is what you call —



Spencerian, — yes, that is the name of the copy-
books — Spencerian writing, while a Japanese draw-
ing is the — autograph — that is the difference — the

And that is the difference between some of the
work of even the great ones before him and what-
ever Whistler did, — everything he touched was his
autograph ; whereas with even Rembrandt there is
the feeling now and then, though seldom, of the set
purpose, of the determination to secure a certain
result, of the intention to do something for others.
Whistler never did anything for any one but himself
He never touched needle or brush to please model,
sitter, or patron. Whenever the work in hand
ceased to amuse and interest him as a creation of his
own fancy, he dropped it. He could not work after
his interest had evaporated.

There is in existence a water-color^ bearing
Whistler's signature on the back, and also this
endorsement : " From my window. This was his
first attempt at water-color. — E. W. Godwin."

It is a characteristic view of the Thames with Old
Battersea Bridge reaching almost from side to side.

In his pastels and water-colors, as in his etchings
and lithographs, he never forced a delicate medium
beyond its limitations.

Of all artists who ever lived, Whistler made the
least mystery of his art

* Owned by Frank Gair Macomber, Esq., of Boston.


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

He not only expressed his intentions fully in his
art, but also in unmistakable language.

In the first of his "Propositions," published many
years ago, he laid down certain fundamental prin-
ciples which controlled his use of etching, water-
color, and pastel, the first proposition being :

"That in art it is criminal to go beyond the
means used in its exercise."

And he defined the limits of the etcher's plate,
and by implication the dimensions of the water-
color and pastel — art's most fragile means.

In the famous "Propositions No. 2" he formu-
lated the principles which governed his work as a
painter, the first being :

"A picture is finished when all trace of the
means used to bring about the end has disap-

And the last :

"The masterpiece should appear as the flower to
the painter, — perfect in its bud as in its bloom, — with
no reason to explain its presence, no mission to ful-
fil, a joy to the artist, a delusion to the philanthro-
pist, a puzzle to the botanist, an accident of senti-
ment and alliteration to the literary man." ^

These two sets of "Propositions," read in con-
nection with his one lecture, the "Ten o' Clock,"
which was delivered in London, February 20, 1885,

^ Gentle Art, p. 116.


at Cambridge, March 24, and Oxford, April 30,
contain his creed in art.

Many a painter has written books explanatory of
his art, but none has ever stated so plainly and so
tersely the principles which actually governed all he
did. Whistler was so epigrammatic in utterance
that he was not taken seriously, but accused of
paradox. But whoever reads what he has so
soberly and earnestly said will better understand his

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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 6 of 18)