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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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And whatever may be thought of reprinting entire
the " Gentle Art," there can be no question about
the great need of scattering broadcast the "Propo-
sitions" and the "Ten o' Clock."


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler


Chelsea — The Royal Academy — " Portrait of His
Mother^' — " Carlyle" — Grosvenor Gallery — The
" Peacock Room" — Concerning Exhibitions.

After — possibly because — his "White Girl" was
rejected at the Salon, he went to London and made
his home at Chelsea, where he had as neighbors
Carlyle, Rossetti, George Eliot, and others of note
in art and literature.

Carlyle's description of Chelsea as it was in 1834,
when he and his wife moved there, is interesting, —
for the place changed little before Whistler came.
Writing to his wife concerning the house he had
found, Carlyle said :

"The street runs down upon the river, which I suppose
you might see by stretching out your head from the front
window, at a distance of fifty yards on the left. We are
called ' Cheyne Row' proper (pronounced Chainie Row), and
area 'genteel neighborhood;' two old ladies on one side,
unknown character on the other, but with ' pianos. ' The
street is flag pathed, sunk storied, iron railed, all old-fash-
ioned and tightly done up ; looks out on a rank of sturdy
old pollarded (that is, beheaded) lime-trees, standing there
like giants in tawtie wigs (for the new boughs are still
young) ; beyond this a high brick wall ; backwards a garden,
the size of our back one at Comely Bank, with trees, etc. , in
bad culture ; beyond this green hayfields and tree avenues,



once a bishop's pleasure-grounds, an unpicturesque yet rather
cheerful outlook. The house itself is eminent, antique, wain-
scoted to the very ceiling, and has been all new painted and
repaired ; broadish stair with massive balustrade (in the old
style), corniced and as thick as one's thigh ; floors thick as a
rock, wood of them here and there worm-eaten, yet capable
of cleanness, and still with thrice the strength of a modern
floor. And then as to rooms, Goody ! Three stories beside
the sunk story, in every one of them three apartments, in
depth something like forty feet in all — a front dining-room
(marble chimney-piece, etc.), then a back dining-room or
breakfast-room, a little narrower by reason of the kitchen
stairs ; then out of this, and narrower still (to allow a back
window, you consider), a china-room or pantry, or I know
not what, all shelved and fit to hold crockery for the whole
street. Such is the ground area, which, of course, continues
to the top, and furnishes every bedroom with a dressing-
room or second bedroom ; on the whole a most massive,
roomy, sufficient old house, with places, for example, to
hang, say, three dozen hats or cloaks on, and as many
crevices and queer old presses and shelved closets (all tight
and new painted in their way) as would gratify the most
covetous Goody, — rent, thirty-five pounds ! I confess I am
strongly tempted. Chelsea is a singular heterogeneous kind
of spot, very dirty and confused in some places, quite beau-
tiful in others, abounding with antiquities and the traces of
great men, — Sir Thomas More, Steele, Smollett, etc. Our
row, which for the last three doors or so is a street, and none
of the noblest, runs out upon a ' Parade' (perhaps they call
it), running along the shore of the river, a broad highway
with huge shady trees, boats lying moored, and a smell of
shipping and tar. Battersea Bridge (of wood) a few yards
off ; the broad river, with white-trowsered, white-shirted Cock-
neys dashing by like arrows in thin, long canoes of boats ;
beyond, the green, beautiful knolls of Surrey, with their
villages, — on the whole a most artificial, green-painted, yet


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

lively, fresh, almost opera-looking business, such as you can
fancy. Finally, Chelsea abounds more than any place in
omnibi, and they take you to Coventry Street for sixpence.
Revolve all this in thy fancy and judgment, my child, and
see what thou canst make of it." i

Between Whistler and Rossetti there sprang up a
friendship that was singular, considering how dia-
metrically opposite they were to one another in
nearly everything. They had, however, this in
common, — each was in search of a degree of the
beautiful quite beyond the grasp of the ordinary
mortal ; but of the two, Whistler's is incomparably
the finer art, for it is the purer and more abstract,
while Rossetti's painting exhibited the literary bent
very conspicuously, — it was inextricably involved
with his poetry.

One day he showed Whistler a sketch which
Whistler liked, and he urged Rossetti to go on with
it ; but Rossetti became so infatuated with his con-
ception that instead of finishing the picture he wrote
a sonnet on the subject and read it to Whistler, who
said :

" Rossetti take out the picture and frame the

Life in Chelsea in those days had its drawbacks.

Whistler's utter lack of commercial instinct, his
dislike for the dealers, the habit he had of falling
out with any one who discussed money matters with
him, and that reluctance to part with pictures which

* Life of Carlyle, First Forty Years, vol. ii., pp. 345-6.



was a conspicuous trait through Hfe, often involved
him in trouble financially.

In 1879 E. W. Godwin designed and built for
him a house in Tite Street. It was of white brick,
and known as the "White House," and is described
as having been very artistic in so far as it was settled
and furnished, but for some time only two rooms
were in order. " Everywhere you encountered great
packing-cases full of pretty things, and saw prepara-
tions for papering and carpeting, but somehow or
other nothing ever got any forwarder. What was
done was perfect in its way. The white wainscoting,
the rich draperies, the rare Oriental china, the pic-
tures and their frames, the old silver, all had a charm
and a history of their own." ^

His powers of persuasion were such that it is said
he once tamed a bailiff — temporarily in possession —
to a degree of docility little short of amazing, — a
favorite word of his.

' ' When the man first appeared he tried to wear his hat in
the drawing-room and smoke about the house. Whistler
soon settled that. He went out into the hall and fetched a
stick, and daintily knocked the man's hat off. The man
was so surprised that he forgot to be angry, and within a day
or two he had been trained to wait at table. One morning,
when Mr. Whistler was shaving, a message was brought up
that the man (he was always known in the house as ' the
man,' as if he were the only one of his species) wanted to
speak to him.

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

OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

" 'Very well, send him up,' said Mr. Whistler. He went
on shaving, and when the man came in said, abruptly,
'Now, then, what do you want?'

" ' I want my money, sir,'

" 'What money ?'

" 'My possession money, sir.'

" ' What, haven't they given it to you ?'

" ' No, sir ; it's you that have to give it to me.'

" 'Oh, the deuce I have !' And Mr. Whistler laughingly
gave him to understand that, if he wanted money, his only
chance was to apply elsewhere.

" 'Well, I think it's very hard, sir,' the man began to
snivel ; ' I have my own family to keep, and my own rent to
pay '

"'I'll tell you what I advise you to do,' Mr. Whistler
returned, as he gently pushed him out of the room : ' you
should do as I do, and have " a man" in your own house.'

" Soon after this the man came and said that if he was not
paid he would have to put bills up outside the house an-
nouncing a sale. And, sure enough, a few days after great
posters were stuck up all over the front of the house, an-
nouncing so many tables, and so many chairs, and so much
old Nankin china for sale on a given day. Mr. Whistler
enjoyed the joke hugely, and hastened to send out invita-
tions to all his friends to a luncheon-party, adding, as a post-
script, ' You will know the house by the bills of sale stuck
up outside.' And the bailiff proved an admirable butler,
and the party one of the merriest ever known." ^

The "White House" was finally sold, and it is
said that when he moved out he wrote on the wall,
" Except the Lord build the house, their labor is in
vain that build it, — E. W. Godwin, R.S.A., built
this one."

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


Speaking of architects, the story is told that he
was once dining, and dining well, at the house of a
friend in London. Towards the end of the dinner
he was obliged to leave the table and run up-stairs
to write a note. In a few moments a great noise
was heard in the hall, and Whistler was found to
have fallen down the stairs. "Who is your archi-
tect?" he asked. His host told him. "I might
have known it ; the teetotaler !"

By the irony of fate the "White House" was
afterwards occupied and much altered by the de-
tested critic of the Times, — detested possibly be-
cause he occupied and dared to alter the house, —
and Whistler asked :

" Shall the birthplace of art become the tomb
of its parasite?"

It was this critic who pronounced a water-color
drawing of Ruskin by Herkomer the best oil por-
trait the painter had ever done, — a mistake Whistler
never let the unlucky writer forget.

In those days he exhibited quite frequently at the
Royal Academy.

Among the earliest pictures exhibited was "At
the Piano." It attracted the attention of the Scotch
painter John Phillip, who wished to buy it. Whist-
ler left the price to him, and Phillip sent a check for
thirty guineas, which was entirely satisfactory, so far
as any one knows.

Thirty thousand dollars has already been paid for
one of his very early pictures, and for any one of a


arrangement in cray and black. i'ortrait of the
painter's mother


roiu tnai ue
.1 uie house of a ,




f art become the tomb

parasite .•'



^], I!/!/ yah;) /I r/Mi/i.Mii/Asoi/

^ — — , ...
:V' one know:

one of



- v..


* t

1. L .

■IV XI :, '1


n rV.f-ck for

-o far


paid for i

OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

half-dozen of his important canvases a bid of fifty
thousand dollars may be had any day.

It is a question of only a few years when Whist-
ler's paintings will sell as high as Rembrandt's. The
great galleries of Europe have not yet entered the
field, and many of the great private collections have
no example of his work. A few Americans, but not
many out of the large number of those who buy
pictures regardless of cost, are already inquiring.
When all these factors come into competition, as
they will soon or late, prices will be realized that
will make the dearest of English or French painters
seem cheap. I

In 1872 the portrait of his mother, an "Arrange-
ment in Gray and Black," was sent in to the Acad-
emy, and accepted only after a sharp controversy,
w^herein Sir William Boxall, R.A, gave the com-
mittee their choice between hanging the picture and
accepting his own resignation as one of their num-
ber. " For," said he, "it shall never be told of me
that I served on a committee which refused such a
work as that." The picture was eventually placed
with the "black-and-white" exhibit, drawings, en-
gravings, etc., and apparently only the critics saw it.
What they said Whistler has himself recorded.

Somebody has asked. Suppose Whistler had been
taken up and made an A.R.A., and in due course an
R.A. — what then?

The thing is well-nigh inconceivable ; and even if
an A. R.A, his innate dislike for sham and preten-


sion in art and his sense of humor would have pre-
vented him from becoming a full-fledged academi-
cian in a body wherein, as in all similar bodies,
mutual appreciation, or at least mutual restraint
from honest depreciation, is essential to existence.

Whistler would probably have accepted the first
degree, the A.R.A., of the fraternity, — for all his life
he was personally, but not in his art, singularly sus-
ceptible to the praise of his fellow-men ; but he
would have remained in the Academy about as long
as he remained president of the British Society of
Painters, — just long enough to overturn things gen-
erally, and then get out.

Once, when taken to task for referring to a painter
who was only an AR.A. as an R.A., he retorted that
it was a difference without a distinction.

To the orthodox academicians his work was a
mystery. Once, when dining in a restaurant in the
West End, the waiter, having difficulty in supplying
Whistler's wants, said, "Well, sir, I can't quite make
out what you mean."

"Gad, sir," he cried, in tones of amazement, "are
you an R.A. ?"

It is not within the range of possibilities that the
Royal Academy, or any other institution, would have
had any perceptible influence on Whistler's art, — on
that side he was indifferent to the influences which
affect most men, to considerations of gain and
popular appreciation.

In the account of a certain public sale the state-
ment was printed that when one of his pictures wasr


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

put up it was loudly hissed. He sat down and wrote
the editor acknowledging the compliment, "the dis-
tinguished though unconscious compliment so pub-
licly paid. It is rare that recognition so complete is
made during the lifetime of the painter."

Another time he said, "There are those, they
tell me, who have the approval of the public, and

Long after he ceased to exhibit at the Academy a
lady met him at one of the exhibitions, and ex-
pressed her surprise.

"Well, you know," he answered, "one must do
something to lend interest to the show, — so here I

Years after, the Academy, while Leighton was
president, invited him to send some of his pictures,
and here is the account of what happened : ^

" He was in Brussels. There came a telegram from him
to me which was a cry of exultation :

" 'My dear S. : The Lord hath delivered them into my
hands. I am sending you by post their last dying confession. '

"And so next morning the post duly brought a letter
from Whistler inclosing the official proposal from the Royal
Academy, signed by Mr, Eaton, secretary to that distin-
guished body, inviting Whistler to contribute to a loan exhi-
bition then presently to be held. Whistler wrote :

" ' Of course, I refuse. You know me too well to doubt
that. Do they think they can use me after so long trampling
on me ? Do they think I don't see what they want ? Do

^ G. W. Smalley, in the London Times. Reprinted in the
New York Tribune, August 19, 1903.



they think I need them ? At last they perceive that they
need me, but in the day of their extremity they shall ask in

"I am quoting from memory, but I give the substance
accurately. He inclosed his answer to the Academy, long
since a public document, with permission to cable it if I liked
to America. I telegraphed Whistler begging him to send no
answer till my letter should reach him. He wired : ' I do
not understand, but I will wait till to-morrow.' I wrote to
him in the best ink, as Merimee said, at my command. I
tried to point out that the Academy had offered him the
amende honorable ; that their invitation was an acknowledg-
ment of their error, and was meant as an atonement ; that
if he sought to humiliate his enemies, no humiliation could
be so complete as their public surrender, of which the proof
would be the hanging of his works on their walls, and much
else which I thought obvious and conclusive. And I begged
him to remember that I had always thought him right, and
always said the world would come round to him, and that
now, as ever before, whether right or wrong, mine was the
counsel of a friend. The answer came by wire early next
morning : ' Alas, my dear S., that you too should have gone
over to the enemy !' I believe if I had but besought him to
consider that his acceptance would have been a service to
art, and if he could himself have thought that it would be,
he would have accepted. I never saw Whistler again, never
heard from him ; a friendship of twenty years came there
and then to an end — on his side."

In 1897 a circular was mailed to him, addressed,
"The Academy, England." At the post-office they
added "Burlington House," where it was declined.
Finally the circular reached him, bearing the en-
dorsement, "Not known at the R. A." He gave it
to the press, saying, " In these days of doubtful fre-"


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

quentation, it is my rare good fortune to be able to
send you an unsolicited, official, and final certificate
of character."

The fact was, mail addressed simply "Whistler,
England," would reach him.

The Grosvenor Gallery, opened in 1877 by Sir
Coutts Lindsay, offered an opportunity to many a
man who either would not or could not exhibit at
the Academy.

It was here that some of Whistler's best things
were shown, — the portraits of Irving as Philip II. ;
Miss Rosa Corder ; Miss Gilchrist, the actress ; the
Carlyle ; Miss Alexander ; and Lady Archibald Camp-
bell, commonly known as "The Lady with the Yel-
low Buskin," and many of his famous nocturnes.

Whistler had a very peculiar laugh, — demoniacal
his enemies called it, — and it is said that while his
portrait was being painted, Irving caught this laugh
and used it with effect in the part of Mephistopheles,
— but then, who knows ?

The story of the painting and the naming of "The
Yellow Buskin" is worth repeating.

Lady Archibald Campbell was an exceedingly
handsome woman, and Whistler expressed the desire
to paint her portrait. She graciously consented,
and the sittings began.

In those days Whistler was looked upon in London
as little less than a mountebank in art, and one day,
putting it as nicely as she could, she said :

" My husband wished me to say that he — he ap-



predated the honor of your inviting me to sit for a
portrait, but that — that he did not wish to be un-
derstood as committing himself in any way, and the
picture must not be considered a commission."

" Dear me, no," said Whistler, as he painted away ;
" under no circumstances. Lord Archibald need give
himself no uneasiness, — my compensation is in your
condescension. We are doing this for the pleasure
there is in it."

The portrait was finished, exhibited as " La Dame
au Brodequin Jaune,'' — and duly ridiculed.

Lady Campbell's friends expressed surprise that
she should have permitted so eccentric an artist to
do so ugly a thing. But time went on ; the picture
made a profound sensation and won its way.

Some time after. Whistler met Lady Campbell in
London, and she said to him :

" My dear Mr. Whistler, I hear my portrait has
been exhibited everywhere and become famous."

"Sh — sh — sh !" with finger on lips. "So it has,
my dear Lady Archibald ; but every discretion has
been observed that Lord Campbell could desire, —
your name is not mentioned. The portrait is known
as 'The Yellow Buskin.'"

It is now in the Wilstach collection, in Philadel-

Whistler preferred to exhibit his work under con-
ditions which he controlled. As early as 1874 he
gave a special exhibition in London, and in the years
1880, 1 88 1, 1883, 1884, and 1886 he exhibited





Dr )rr rne to sit for a

ish to be un-

way, and the


d away ;


ell's tnends expressed surprise
permitted so eccentric an artist to
cio i.o u^iy u. uiing. But time went on ; the picture
made a profound sensation and won its way.

Some time after, Whistler met Lady Campbell in

T.(^ f* /■! / \ t-^ 01-|/i C-'t*^' CM!,'' f/-» VlltTl '



It liiJadel-


'listler preferred to exhibit his work under con-

; which he controlled. A3 early as 1874 he

I special exhibition in Lor id in the years

81, 1883 he exhibited

HKiuyauoJia ja ammi aj .a^a.ui ai rAnwro/iAHXK


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

either prints or paintings in the rooms of the Fine
Arts Society.

He always occupied the place of honor with the
International Society at Knightsbridge.

Occasionally he would use the galleries of dealers,
but not often, and then only upon his own terms.

While living at Chelsea he had Carlyle as a near
neighbor, and of his own notion he painted the por-
trait that now hangs in Glasgow.

These two extraordinary beings were quite conge-
nial. The dogmatic old philosopher, then past sev-
enty-five, sat day after day to the eccentric painter,
who was nearly forty years his junior, as patiently as
if he were a professional model, and the sittings were
long and tedious.

One day, as he was leaving, quite exhausted, he
met at the door a little girl in white, and he asked
her name.

" I am Miss Alexander," she said, primly, " and I
am going to have my portrait painted."

The sage shook his head in commiseration, and
muttered, as he passed on :

" Puir lassie, puir lassie !"

If proof were required of the underlying sincerity
and earnestness of Whistler in those days when the
world refused to take him seriously, this long and
intimate association with Carlyle would be more than

They were neighbors. Carlyle had every oppor-
tunity of seeing Whistler on the street and in his



studio. Seemingly two beings could not be less
sympathetic, and yet the philosopher who had so
few good words for any one, who was the implacable
foe of sham and falsehood, who was intolerant of the
society of others, who cared little for art and less for
artists, freely gave his time and society t(^ the most
unpopular painter in England.

In truth there was a good deal in common be-
tween the two, — in the attitude of the one towards
literature and what his fellow-writers were saying,
and in the attitude of the other towards art and what
his fellow-painters were doing. Each stood in his
own sphere for the highest ideals, and no doubt each
recognized in the other the quality of sincerity in his

Poor Carlyle ! your name should never be men-
tioned without an anathema for the scavengers who
dealt with your memory. If they are not suffering
the torments of the damned, the mills of the gods
have ceased to turn.

Froude prefaced the Life of Carlyle with a long
protestation that it contained the truth, the whole
truth, and nothing but the truth ; which, it seems,
according to even his notions, was a lie ; for in the
secrecy of his closet he prepared a pamphlet con-
taining the revelations of the Jewsbury creature, —
the expert opinion of "an ill-natured old maid," as
Mrs. Carlyle called her, — to the effect that Carlyle
should never have married ; and this pamphlet, con-
taining the salacious tittle-tattle between himself and




:. could not be less

osopher who had so

n wa'i tlic implacable

■rant of the

1 less for


were do; n his

the highest ide^^ no doubt each

other the quality of sincerity in his

Id never ' i-

ti. :io


th" •


. IS,

.jr in the

ym- ahmui)^. ;AOAAS.avsik:v^AiiMi enapaaapiijlfit con-

the revelafii6W W='^HI^"J'ewsbury creature, —

Xpert opinion of "an ill-natured old maid." as

Hyle called her, — t t that C


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

this old maid, is given the world as presumably his
last instalment of revelations, though no one knows
how much similar stuff the Jewsbury creature, a
romancer by profession, may have left pigeon-holed
for still further harm.

And "he answer to it all is that Carlyle, in spite
of the old maid's opinion, was married ; and what
is more to the point, remained married forty years,
with no more of differences and dissensions, even
accepting all the Froude-Jewsbury tattle, than any
good wife will have with any good Scotchman ; and
during their long married life she was a help and
an inspiration to her husband, and after her death
she was mourned as few wives in the history of man-
kind have been mourned.

A depth beyond the imagination of Dante must
be found for the Froude-Jewsbury combination.

As the portrait neared completion, Carlyle took a

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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 7 of 18)