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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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good look at it one day, seemed pleased, and said :

"Weel, man, you have given me a clean collar,
and that is more than Meester Watts has done."

The portrait was begun and ended as a labor of
love, and for nearly twenty years it remained unsold.

After Carlyle died some citizens of Glasgow, from
purely patriotic motives, and with no appreciation
whatsoever of the painting, thought it should be
purchased, and a public subscription was started.

When the amount first talked of — quite a small
sum — had been nearly subscribed. Whistler learned
that the subscription paper expressly disavowed all



approval of himself and his art, whereupon he
promptly more than doubled the price, to the dis-
may of the canny Scots, who wished to buy the por-
trait without the art ; and when they hesitated, he
again raised the price, to their utter discomfiture, and
the picture was not purchased until 1891.

It is now owned by the corporation of Glasgow,
and hangs in the public gallery surrounded by a
mass of lesser works which completely dwarf its
great proportions and render adequate appreciation

It is worth while to visit Glasgow to see this por-
trait, but until the authorities have the good judgment
to give it a room, or at least a wall to itself, the
journey will prove an exasperation.

The hanging of pictures is a "lost art ;" and most
of the art of pictures is lost in the hanging.

A picture is painted in a certain environment of
light, color, and tone, — and to Whistler this environ-
ment was a vital consideration. For the time being
the canvas is the one conspicuous thing in the studio,
of even greater importance than subject or model.
From this environment of creation, and with which
it is in perfect harmony, it is violently forced into
conjunction with great squares of atrocious gilt
frames and expanses of clashing canvases.

A gallery of pictures is the slaughter-house of
art ; annual exhibitions are the shambles of beauty.

So far as galleries are concerned, the advantage is
usually with the dealer, for he knows the value of


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

arrangement and shows his best things more or less
detached. One by one the gems of his collection
are presented to the customer and time given for

There are but two uses to which a painting can
be put with any sense of the fitness of things : it
may be used decoratively alone or in connection
with one or two others which harmonize and which
are distributed to produce a perfect effect ; this is
the noblest use to which a painting of any kind can
be put, the production of an effect in which the
painting, however great, is but an element in a per-
fect whole.

Another and commoner use is the enjoyment of
a picture by itself, as one reads a poem or listens to
music, more or less oblivious to all surroundings.
It is obvious that this sort of enjoyment implies the
subordination of all surroundings to the painting, or
the poem, or the music, the arrangement of the
environment so as to secure the greatest possible
freedom from intrusive and distracting sights and
sounds, — in short, as regards painting, the reproduc-
tion in a sense of the atmosphere of the studio
where the picture was created, or of the place, altar,
or chapel for which it was intended ; and it means
most emphatically freedom from sharp contrast with
pictures by other men and of other times, schools,
and conditions, however good, which will clash pre-
cisely as would two orchestras playing different
pieces in the same hall.



One ' can imagine Whistler and Carlyle — painter
and philosopher, two masters, each in his vocation —
in the studio, and the growing portrait, a thing of
beauty there, a bond of union between two men so
divergent, and one can imagine how beautiful the
portrait would be anywhere if by itself amidst har-
monious surroundings, whether used as the chief
ornament of a dignified hall or placed in a more
neutral atmosphere for study and appreciation.
But one cannot imagine more destructive surround-
ings than those of a public gallery, the walls of
which teem with writhing, wriggling things in huge
gilt frames and glaring colors.

And the painters, who ought to know better, but
who encourage these great collections and exhibi-
tions, who live for them, work for them, slave for
them, are more to blame for the existence of these
heterogeneous conglomerations than the public, who
do not know better, but walk helplessly about amidst
endless rows of staring canvases, dimly conscious
that all is not right.

Pictures of equal merit do not necessarily hang
together. A Valesquez and a Raphael, each su-
premely beautiful in the place for which it is in-
tended, produce an inharmonious effect if placed
side by side.

A rabble, with men or pictures, is a throng com-
posed of more or less incongruous and unsympa-
thetic units.

With the exception of the few instances, as in


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

the Turner room in the National Gallery in London,
where the works of one man are grouped for the
express purpose of comparison and study, every
collection of pictures is a rabble, and as a whole

Nor does the grouping of the works of one man
in one room produce a beautiful effect, a beautiful
room ; not at all, for they are grouped for a scientific
rather than an aesthetic purpose, for the purpose of
study and comparison in a room which is, as it
should be, otherwise barren and neutral.

One or, at most, two fine pictures are all any
ordinary room will stand, and to produce an effect
wherein nothing overwhelmingly predominates, but
everything finds its place and remains there, re-
quires genius different from but of the same high
order as that of the painter, and that sort of genius
has been lacking in the Western world for some

So low has the once great art of painting fallen
that it has helplessly relinquished its original field
of great achievement, the adornment of buildings
inside and out, and that has become a separate trade
so incompetently followed that the phrase "interior
decorator" is one of reproach.

And yet little as the commercial "interior dec-
orator" knows about decoration, it is safer to trust to
his fustian stock of burlaps, wall-papers, imitation
leathers, metals, lustres, and illuminations than follow
the guidance of the painters themselves, — for, with
rare exceptions, they know nothing beyond the



narrow confines of their frames, and their own houses
and studios resemble curiosity-shops.

The art of decoration, which impHes the co-op-
eration of architect, sculptor, and painter as a unit,
has not been practised since the sixteenth century,
and not in any high degree of perfection since three
hundred years before.

With the disintegration of the union among the
arts, each has accomplished endless detached and
isolated perfections, but nothing that is really worth
while in the sense that a Greek temple or a Gothic
cathedral was worth while, — for nothing so chaste
and perfect as the former or so sublime and beau-
tiful as the latter has been done since each of the
three constructive arts began to work in jealous in-
dependence of the others.

Rossetti and Whistler were both friends of the
wealthy and eccentric ship-owner F. R. Leyland, of
No. 50 Prince's Gate. He was a collector of things
rare and beautiful, a "patron" of art and artists, a
musician, and altogether a character one associates
with Romance rather than with London.

It was for him that Whistler painted the famous
"Peacock Room," under the following circum-
stances :

Leyland had bought the " Princess of the Land
of Porcelain," and one day Whistler went to see it
in place. He found it in a dining-room which was
richly decorated with costly Spanish leather and a
heavy ceiling of wood, a place altogether too sombre


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

for his bright and brilhant "Princess," and he pro-
tested against the discord.

"What would you do?" asked Leyland.

"Paint the room."

"What ! paint that beautiful Spanish leather?"

" Most assuredly, — if this is to be the boudoir of
the 'Princess.' "

Whistler was told to go ahead and make the room
harmonize with the painting.

He started in and covered every inch of wall
surface, even the insides of the shutters, with a won-
derful scheme of decoration in blue and gold, the
brilliant coloring of the peacock, making a color-
effect rich beyond description.

Unhappily, nothing had been said concerning the
price, and that finally named by Leyland seemed to
Whistler quite inadequate ; but he made no com-
plaint and went on with the work. The trouble
came when Leyland paid in pounds instead of
in guineas. That was more than Whistler could

All professional men in England being paid in
guineas, he would not permit art to be dealt with as
merchandise. He felt, therefore, that he had been
robbed of his shillings, and the whole affair, which
from the beginning had been a matter of pleasure
rather than of profit with him, was placed on a com-
mercial footing. Considering the time spent, the
surface covered, the work done, the price fixed by
Leyland was quite inadequate. Then, to pay in scant
9 129


pounds, instead of full guineas, that was, in truth,
adding insult to injury.

The work was not quite complete, and he took his
revenge by painting his "patron" in the guise of a
peacock, with his claws on what might be mere deco-
ration, or, as any one might fancy, a pile of guineas.
The likeness was not immediately perceptible, but,
with a hint, the world soon saw it, and laughed.'

Leyland has been dead a long time, and the house
has passed from his family, but the " Peacock Room"
is still in existence, and the curious visitor is occa-
sionally, but not often, admitted. The "Princess" no
longer hangs at one end, for long ago she went to
Scotland, and will soon find her way to America;
but the two peacocks are at the other end, — one the
personification of the grasping "patron" and the
other bearing a faint though perceptible likeness to
the defiant painter with the white lock.

The shelves, which were once filled with the
rarest of blue-and-white china, are now given over
to books, and altogether the place is but a melan-
choly reminder of former beauty. But the decora-
tion is in good condition, and could the walls and
ceilings be removed and the " Princess" restored, the
original effect would be reproduced.

The construction of the room was not Whistler's,
so he worked under great disadvantages in dealing
with architectural features, particularly the ceiling,
which he did not like ; so the room, if ever removed,
would not represent his ideas of proportion and


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

construction. It would simply show how he made
the best of a difficult situation.

The architect who designed the room and looked
upon the house as his stepping-stone to fame, when
he saw the — to him — desecration, was completely-
unbalanced, went insane, and died not long after.

If opportunities had offered, Whistler would have
been a great decorator, for such was his suscepti-
bility to color that he could not tolerate discordant
effects about him. It was ever his habit to decorate
his studio, his house, or any rooms he occupied to
suit his exceedingly fastidious taste.

He did not "decorate" in the sense the term is
accepted nowadays. In truth, the casual visitor to
his studio or to his house would depart under the
impression there was no decoration at all, for neither
figures nor patterns made the walls attractive, yet
from floor to ceiling every square inch was a matter
of extreme solicitude. He would mix colors and
apply them with his own hands until the room was
in harmony.

Even the great barn of an attic which was his
studio in Paris was painted by him, so that from its
dark — not black — rich oak floor, along base-boards
and walls, to sloping roof, the effect was such as he
sought as an environment for his pictures, — a brown,
a grayish brown, a soft and singular shade of brown,
hard to describe, difficult to see, but delightful to
feel'm. its sober and retiring neutrality, — and that is
the best color, the best tone, against which to hang



Whistler's paintings in any general exhibition, for it
remains quietly and unobtrusively in the background,
and at the same time the silvery quality in it gives
it life.

When London laughed at his " Yellow and
White" exhibition of etchings it did not know that
a master of color was giving an object-lesson in
interior decoration.

Who can recall without a feeling of restful satis-
faction the delightful reception-room of that later
home in Paris, at i lo Rue du Bac ? So simple that,
really, there was not a conspicuous feature about it,
and yet every detail had been worked out with as
much care as he bestowed on a painting.

This feature of Whistler's art, this susceptibility
to color and line in surroundings will be referred to
again in the discussion of his exquisite color-sense.

For the present it is sufficient to point out that he
was something more than a painter of easel pictures ;
that instinctively he was akin to those great masters
who combined their efforts with those of the archi-
tect in the endeavor to produce beautiful results.

A sympathetic writer has said :

"Although he was in no way a spendthrift, he would make
every sort of sacrifice to his art. Had he been given more
opportunity, there seems no reason to doubt that he would
have made other rooms even more beautiful than the famous
' Peacock' dining-room. But, frankly, the public did not
care for his work enough to buy much of it from him at any-
thing like a fair price ; so that he was obliged to limit him-
self to comparatively small surfaces, easel pictures, over


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

which collectors will soon begin to wrangle, we dare say,
now that the clever hand which created them can work no
more, and the big, kind heart which gave this man the cour-
age to fight through fifty years against ' la betise humaine is
cold and still." ^

In showing his work to visitors he exercised all
the reserve and discretion of the Japanese, who
places before his guests but one kakemona during
that most formal and elaborate of social festivities,
the "Tea Ceremony," or who, under pressure of re-
peated requests, takes from its little box and unfolds
from its many silken wrappings one, just one, of his
precious bits of porcelain. No more on the same
day, lest the surfeited guests fail in appreciation.

If in his studio. Whistler would first turn to the
wall every picture and arrange the few pieces of fur-
niture so that nothing should attract the vagrant eye,
then he would place the one picture he wished seen
on the easel in the best of light, without, however,
letting it be seen until frame and glass were care-
fully wiped, when, stepping back on a line with his
visitor, he, too, would enjoy his work as if he saw it
for the first time. He would never exhibit anything
he was tired of, and he never tired of anything he
exhibited. This appreciation of his own work, his
enthusiasm over what he had done, was often mis-
understood by people accustomed to the false mod-
esty of artists who stand dumb while others vainly

^ Harper s Weekly, August i, 1903.


strive to see in their work the beauties which they
of all people can best make known.

If time permitted he might bring forth two, or
even three, pictures, but rarely more, and always
each by itself If some visitor, presuming on his
good nature, — and he was indulgent in the extreme
to those he liked, — insisted on placing the pictures
side by side for comparison, as is the custom in
shops, he was as uneasy and unhappy as would be
a poet if several persons insisted on reading aloud
before him several of his poems at the same time, —
for what is a picture but a poem, mute to the ear
but clarion-voiced to the eye ?

In public exhibitions of his works he had the same
sense of the eternal fitness of things.

First of all, the room must be properly lighted,
and Whistler's paintings require a soft light. In his
studio the skylight was well arranged with shades,
so he could keep the light soft and constant ; and
frequently he would draw the shades so as to make
the room quite dark, and then view portrait and
sitter as they loomed up in shadow.

"Some students planned to call on him one New Year's
morning. A friendly student, not at all sure that Whistler
would like it, gave him a little tip as to the surprise party.

" 'Tell them that I never receive callers,' he exclaimed,
excitedly. The student explained that he wasn't supposed
to know anything about it.

" ' Are you sure they mean well ?' he inquired, anxiously.
And on being reassured, ' Well, tell them I never receive

visitors in the morning. '


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

" The students called in the afternoon, and found awaiting
them a most genial and delightful host. He told stories and
showed them his palettes to prove that he practised what he
preached, and pictures and sketches were exhibited to them
never seen by the public, among the surprising ones being
some allegorical studies. He served them with champagne
and fruits and cakes, and was most solicitous as to their en-
joyment. One of them asked him how he arranged his sub-
jects so as to produce the low tone noted in his pictures.
He posed a visitor, pulled over the shades so as to shut out
all light, save from one window, and there before them was
a living Whistler ' arrangement' ready to recede behind a
frame, as he says all portraits should do.

It is a pity to ever subject his pictures to the try-
ing light of the usual gallery, and it is a still greater
pity to exhibit them at night in competition with
foot-lights and foyer. His work should not be made
the attraction for either a " five-o'clock tea" or a
dress rehearsal. People who will not go during the
day are not worth inviting.

The fact that people are content to view the best
paintings of all time by artificial light, and even
profess to find a "softness" and "charm" lacking by
day, is but additional evidence of that want of sus-
ceptibility and fine feeling which characterizes the
modern world, artists and laymen alike. For no
picture that was painted by daylight should be seen
at night, if all its beauties are to be felt.

A room for the exhibition of his pictures should
be of precisely the right tone, and this is a matter
of no little difficulty.



When president of the Society of British Artists,
in 1886, his arrangement of the rooms was criticised
as being "tentative," because he had left the bat-
tens on the walls ; whereupon he wrote that in the
engineering of the light and the treatment of the
walls and the arrangement of the draperies every-
thing was intentional ; that the battens were meant
to remain, " not only for their use, but as bringing
parallel lines into play that subdivide charmingly the
lower portions of the walls and add to their light
appearance ; that the whole combination is com-

There is a hint to all managers of exhibitions.

To summarize the foregoing suggestions :

The tone of the walls should be such as to keep
them in the background.

The monotonous blankness of the walls may be
broken by unobtrusive lines, not arbitrarily for effect,
but justifiably for use and effect.

Only such draperies should be used as are abso-
lutely necessary to reduce vacancies or to soften
harsh lines, and these should lose themselves in the
tone of the room.

Floor should be low in tone, the rich, dark brown
of old oak keeping its place under foot best of

If the room is large and a few chairs and benches
are admitted, they should be of wood, plain and for
service alone, as becomes a room that is arranged
but for one purpose, — namely, the exhibition of cer-


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

tain pictures, — and they should be painted or stained
in tone to correspond with the room.

The hght should be under absolute control, and
kept quite soft, diffused, and constant throughout the

The room should be closed at night, or at least
the people fully warned by notices in catalogue and
elsewhere that if they have any real desire to see
and understand the pictures they will come during
the day.

The pictures should be well spaced, so that each
may, to a certain degree, be studied by itself, for
each is as complete a work as a piece of music.

In short, in an exhibition of pictures, or of any-
thing else, everything should be subordinated to the
things exhibited ; nothing should be permitted to
obtrude upon the attention to their disadvantage ;
the work of the decorator and furnisher on such an
occasion is perfect when it is unnoticed.

For black-and-whites, experiments in color may
be made, but for paintings which are compositions
in color the background should be neutral, — silent
like the background of music.

As every one knows, green and red, side by side,
accentuate and help each other ; therefore, pictures
in which the prevailing tone is green are helped by
a red or crimson background, while pictures in which
the prevailing tone is red are helped by a green back-

The foregoing is elementary and a matter of
common observation, and the walls of art galleries



and exhibitions are frequently covered with either a
shade of green or a shade of crimson ; but in placing
pictures no discrimination is exercised, — landscapes
and marines in which green predominates are placed
side by side with portraits and interiors in which red
frequently predominates on the same green or red
background, to the advantage of one set of pictures
and the detriment of the other.

So far as color-effect is concerned, the pictures
themselves go very well side by side, the red of
the life pieces helping the green of the nature
pieces, and vice versa ; but if the background is
permitted to assert itself, if the pictures are spaced
on the wall, any background which accentuates the
one class does so at the expense of the other.

If pictures in which the prevailing tone is green
are to be placed on the same wall with pictures in
which red predominates, the background should be
neither red nor green, but, theoretically, a gray,
which is neutral and helps all colors in contrast ;
practically, however, a grayish hue of brown, be-
cause pure gray requires a greater expanse of wall
between each picture than the exigencies of an
exhibition or of a typical picture gallery permit,
while the element of brown permits the wall to
assert itself a little more positively between the
frames, and, at the same time, the quality of neu-
trality is almost as well preserved.

The stronger the tone of the background the
nearer together pictures may be placed ; the weaker
and more neutral the background the wider the


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

spacing must be, — a pure gray requiring the widest
spacing of all backgrounds, a deep crimson the
narrowest. In other words, it requires a wide ex-
panse of gray to support a little color, while a very
little crimson will carry a very large expanse of
color in the way of gilt frames and strong landscapes
and marines.

Wide frames, whether of gold or dark wood,
enable green walls to carry green pictures and red
walls to carry red pictures without the pictures suf-
fering so much ; the frames intervene, and the imme-
diate contrast is between canvas and frame instead
of canvas and wall. But the secondary contrast is
there and is felt precisely in proportion to the extent
of the spacing between the pictures, and the pict-
ures suffer accordingly.




The Ruskin Suit — His Attitude towards the World
and towards Art — ''The Gentle Art of Making
Enemies'' — Critics and Criticism.

In 1877 Ruskin, passing through the Grosvenor
Gallery, caught sight of something the like of which
he had never seen in the world of art. It was the
"Nocturne, Black and Gold. The Falling Rocket,"
a faithful transcript of the painter's impression of a
night-scene in Cremorne Gardens. But Ruskin cared
less for the subtle glories of night than for the more
garish beauties of the day, and still less for the sights

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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 8 of 18)