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Recollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler online

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and sounds of Cremorne Gardens, and neither he nor
any one else in either modern or ancient world knew
anything at all about the painting of night as Whist-
ler painted it. It is not surprising, therefore, that he
was startled, for the picture seemed to violate all
those canons of art which he had laid down in Eng-
lish the beauty of which more than condones his
every error, and in the impulse of the moment he
wrote in a number of Fors Clavigera :

" For Mr. Whistler's own sake, no less than for
the protection of the purchaser. Sir Coutts Lindsay
ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in
which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly





-thing the ; l;.

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 glorie<! of night than for the more
garish ' s

<ind souii :•



^'j vioidte all

>i ilown in Eng-

...... ...^ ,^^... ,^ condones his

every error, a... ^.-ulse of the moment he

wrote in a number of Fors Clavigera :

"For Mr. Whistler's own sake, no less than for

not to have i'

ill-educat 'oftheai nearly


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have
seen and heard much of cockney impudence before
now, but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two
hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the
public's face."

By way of extenuation, it must be borne in mind
that this was written off-hand, at a time when Ruskin
was saying so many extravagant things, though with
them so many profoundly true things, that no one
quite understood him, and many thought him not
quite sound mentally. The habit of sweeping gen-
eralizations, of extravagant appreciations and de-
preciations had grown apace since the publication
of the first volume of " Modern Painters," nearly
forty years before, and he invariably yielded to the
impression or the prejudice of the moment.

If Ruskin, in estimating Whistler, had paused but
a moment and recalled just a paragraph from the
preface to the second edition of the first volume of
" Modern Painters" he would have been more toler-
ant, for he there said :

"All that is highest in art, all that is creative and im-
aginative, is formed and created by every great master for
himself, and cannot be repeated or imitated by others. We
judge of the excellence of a rising writer, not so much by
the resemblance of his works to what has been done before
as by their difference from it ; and while we advise him, in
the first trials of strength, to set certain models before him,
with respect to inferior points, — one for versification, another



for arrangement, another for treatment, — we yet admit not
his greatness until he has broken away from all his models
and struck forth versification, arrangement, and treatment of
his own."

And was not Ruskin himself the hfe-long apolo-
gist for a most original and extraordinary genius, —
a man who to his last days was as little understood
as Whistler?

Here are some things that were said of Turner as
late as 1842, when he was doing some of his best
work :

" The ' Dogano' (szc) and ' Campo Santo' have a glorious
ensemble, and are produced by wonderful art, but they mean
nothing. They are produced as if by throwing handfuls of
white and blue and red at the canvas, letting what chanced
to stick, stick, and then shadowing in some forms to make
the appearance of a picture ; and yet there is a fine harmony
in the highest range of color to please the sense of vision.
We admire and we lament to see such genius so employed.
But 'Farther on you may fare worse.' No. 182 is a snow-
storm of most unintelligible character, — the snow-storm of a
confused dream, with a steamboat • making signals,' and (ap-
parently, like the painter who was in it) ' going by the head'
(lead ?). Neither by land nor water was such a scene ever
witnessed. And of 338, 'Burial at Sea,' though there is a
striking effect, still the whole is so idealized and removed
from truth that, instead of the feeling it ought to effect, it
only excites ridicule. And No. 353 caps all for absurdity,
without even any of the redeeming qualities of the rest. It
represents Bonaparte — facetiously described as the ' Exile
and the rock-limpet' — standing on the sea-shore at St. Helena
. . . the whole thing is so truly ludicrous," etc.^

^ Library Gazette, May 14, 1842, p. 331.

OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Another writer says :

' ' This gentleman has on former occasions chosen to paint
with cream, or chocolate, yolk of egg, or currant-jelly, —
there he uses his whole array of kitchen-stuff. . . . We cannot
fancy the state of eye which will permit any one cognizant of
art to treat these rhapsodies as Lord Byron treated ' Christa-
bel ;' neither can we believe in any future revolution which
shall bring the world round to the opinion of the worshipper,
if worshippers such frenzies still possess."^

In reply to these and similar criticisms Ruskin
said : ^

"There is nothing so high in art but that a scurrile jest
can reach it ; and often the greater the work the easier it
is to turn it into ridicule. To appreciate the science of
Turner's color would require the study of a life, but to laugh
at it requires little more than the knowledge that yolk of egg
is yellow and spinach green, — a fund of critical information
on which the remarks of most of our leading periodicals have
been of late years exclusively based. We shall, however,
in spite of the sulphur-and-treacle criticisms of our Scotch
connoisseurs and the eggs and the spinach of our English
ones, endeavor to test the works of this great colorist by a
knowledge of nature somewhat more extensive than is to be
gained by an acquaintance, however familiar, with the
apothecary's shop or the dinner -table. "

There is Ruskin in arms on the other side, — it
making all the difference in the world which ox is

' Athenccum, May 14, 1842, p. 433.

* See opening paragraph of Chapter II. of the first and
second editions of the first volume of ' ' Modern Painters. ' '



What an interesting chapter in the history of
appreciation it all makes. Here we have the critics
fulminating against Turner in " egg and spinach"
terms and Ruskin fulminating against the critics in
"pot and kettle" terms. A few years later we have
Ruskin fulminating against Whistler in the same old
terms ; but Whistler greatly improved the language
of vituperation by introducing humor, and answered
with words that bit like acid and epigrams pointed
hke needles — the etcher in controversy.

" Produced as if by throwing handfuls of white
and blue and red at the canvas," said the critic of
Turner. "Flinging a pot of paint in the public's
face," said Ruskin of Whistler. Beyond this, criti-
cism begins to be personal.

And Whistler drew the line on the "pot and
kettle" stage and brought suit for libel.

The case was heard in November, 1878, before
Baron Huddleston and a special jury.

The cross-examination of Whistler by the at-
torney-general, who appeared for the defendant,
was one of the features of the case, and brought
out many of the artist's views concerning art and
art critics.

It is said that during the trial one of Whistler's
counsel was holding up the nocturne in controversy
before the jury, when one of the counsel on the
other side called out :

"You are holding that upside down."

"No, I'm not."

" I tell you, you are."


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

" How do you know which is the top and which
is the bottom?"

" Oh, I don't know ; only when I saw it hanging
in the Grosvenor Gallery it was the other side

Whereupon — out of deference to precedent — the
nocturne was reversed.

When Whistler was asked whether the nocturne
represented a view of Cremorne, he answered :

"If it were called a view of Cremorne, it would
certainly bring about nothing but disappointment
on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic

And again, when asked whether a certain nocturne
in blue and silver was a "correct" representation of
Battersea Bridge, he replied :

"I did not intend it to be a 'correct' portrait of
the bridge. It is only a moonlight scene, and the
pier in the centre of the picture may not be like the
piers at Battersea Bridge as you know them in broad
daylight. As to what the picture represents, that
depends upon who looks at it. To some it may
represent all that is intended ; to others it may rep-
resent nothing."

"The prevailing color is blue?"


"Are these figures on the top of the bridge in-
tended for people?"

"They are just what you like."

"Is that a barge beneath?"

"Yes. I am very much encouraged at your



perceiving that. My whole scheme was only to bring
about a certain harmony of color,"

Mr. Ruskin did not appear, but others testified in
his behalf.

Edward Burne-Jones admitted the picture had
fine color, but found absolutely no detail and com-
position. It was "bewildering in form," and "one
of the thousand failures to paint night," and "not
worth two hundred guineas."

All of which opinions have been reversed by time,
— even to the value, which quintupled many years

Mr. FrLth — of whose art both Burne-Jones and
Ruskin probably had opinions that could not be
expressed in temperate language — presented his
credentials as the author of the "Railway Station,"
"Derby Day," and the "Rakes Progress," and
testified that Whistler's pictures were " not serious
works of art." But, then, he confessed he had not
been invited to exhibit at the Grosvenor Gallery,
and, as every one knows, what is considered art in
one exhibition may not be so considered in another.

And Tom Taylor, of the Times, — well, for Tom
Taylor's testimony and opinions one must go to the
" Gentle Art." It is his one sure niche in the temple
of fame.

In addressing the jury, the attorney-general said
"he did not know when so much amusement had
been offered to the British public as by Mr. Whist-
ler's pictures."


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

The verdict was for the plaintiff, and the damages
assessed at one farthing ; which coin Whistler wore V^
on his chain long afterwards.

The costs assessed against Ruskin amounted to
£386 1 2s. 4d., and were paid by public subscription,
one hundred and twenty persons contributing.

Concerning this suit, Ruskin said, ** I am blamed
by my prudent acquaintances for being too personal ;
but, truly, I find vaguely objurgatory language gen-
erally a mere form of what Plato calls 'shadow-
fighting.' " And long after, when a friend asked
him about the case, he said, " I am afraid of a libel
action if I open my mouth ; and if I can't say what
I like about a person, I prefer to say nothing at all." ^

Even Ruskin could not say what he liked about
any one, though every one, including the victim,
might like the manner of his saying it. Still, it
will ever remain a matter of wonder how Whistler
induced an English jury, who could not possibly
understand him, to give him a nominal verdict and
saddle/ the costs upon Ruskin, who was something
of a popular idol.

Whistler's lawyers must have been cleverer than
those of the other side. The attorney-general prob-
ably proved, as his speech indicates, a clumsy de-
fender in a case involving nice questions of art.

Be it said to the credit of Whistler's sagacity,
he always employed the best lawyers available. He

'John Ruskin, by Spielmann, p. 34.


once said, " Poor lawyers, like poor paintings, are
dear at any price."

While Whistler had practised the gentle art of
making enemies from the beginning of his career,
his suit against Ruskin was, so to speak, his first
public appearance, and he threw his dart at a shining

What his real feelings towards Ruskin were no
man can say, — for towards the public and his critics
he was one man, towards his art he was quite

To the world he seemed the incarnation of vanity
and conceit ; to the few whose privilege it was to see
him at work he appeared, and was, the embodiment
of sincerity and earnestness, of simplicity to the
verge of diffidence.

It is impossible to conceive two personalities so dif-
ferent as Whistler at work and Whistler at play, and
all his controversies were play to him, the amuse-
ment of his hours of relaxation.

He sued Ruskin, not because his status before art
was in any wise affected, but because his status be-
fore the public was assailed ; not because he cared
the snap of his finger for any adverse opinion con-
cerning his pictures, but because he felt that he had
a certain position, pose one might say, to maintain,
and because it amused him to sue one who was con-
sidered so infallible ; and he, no doubt, felt reason-


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

ably sure he would be more than recompensed by
the solemn testimony of opposing witnesses.

Whistler has been so often charged with being a
poser that in the eyes of the world he really must
have seemed so.

He was a poser in the sense already indicated,
— namely, he was one man before the public and
another at work. In this sense every man clever
enough to forget himself at times is something of a
poser, for only the stupid who can talk nothing but
"shop," wherever they are, are the same day in and
day out.

Most men are able to leave their work behind
and adopt a role more or less artificial in social in-
tercourse. The brilliant few who make society pos-
sess this faculty in an eminent degree.

The objection that social England has against the
shopkeeper is, no doubt, based upon many sad ex-
periences that the shopkeeper brings his shop with
him to dinner, and will not, or cannot, pose to the
extent of forgetting his material concerns in the
presence of the frivolous.

The preacher, the politician, the lawyer, the sol-
dier may introduce a little "shop" in general con-
versation, for these occupations are supposed to have
a more general interest ; but the butcher, the baker,
and the candlestick-maker cannot. But preacher,
politician, lawyer, and soldier make the better
guests if they pose a little and forget, for the time
being, their occupations.



Convictions must be introduced sparingly in social
intercourse ; a very few go a great way.

Why not adopt and duly post some such salutary
rule as this ? In social intercourse the utterance of
one's profound convictions shall bear the same ratio
to one's total utterances on any given occasion that
the speaker bears to the number present and partici-
pating in the conversation. That is to say, if the
conversation is between two alone, half that either
says may be his convictions, the other half a polite,
though futile, endeavor to understand the other's
convictions. If at a table of twelve, about a twelfth
of one's real thoughts are permissible, and all that,
in justice to others, should be attempted.

But, then, conversation is a lost art. An Athenian
could talk better about everything than a modern
can talk about anything. Cast a subject, a thought,
so much as a suggestion, into a knot of Greeks, and
in a trice, like dogs over a bone, they would be
wrestling with it, and the less they knew about it the
brighter the discussion.

Knowledge is the last refuge of the stupid. Facts
are the sinkers of talk. Ideas are the flash-lights of
the imagination ; and conversation depends not upon
knowledge but upon ideas. One who knows noth-
ing of a subject may have more ideas concerning it
than one who knows all about. Women are fre-
quently better conversers than men, because less
hampered by facts.

Knowledge is a heavy weight for conversation to
carry. But of all the bores who find their way to


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

the dinner-table the speciaHst in knowledge is the
most hopeless. The man who knows everything about
something is at the stupid end ; the man who knows
something about everything at the brilliant, with a
place at his right hand for the woman who knows
nothing about anything.

Whistler was of the choice few who would never
speak seriously of his serious pursuits in general
conversation. At those very moments when he
seemed to be saying most about art and artists he
was in reality saying least of what he really thought
When he talked most of himself he said nothing
that he really felt. It was almost impossible to draw
from him a serious opinion concerning a picture or
a painter. Though he might rail by the hour against
this man or that, if the mood seized him, it all meant

In his studio, when at work, opinions and apprecia-
tions worth remembering would drop from his lips ;
but he rarely committed himself; not because his
convictions were not clear, but because he seldom
thought it worth while.

Once he was dining with quite a distinguished
company. The conversation — possibly as tribute to
the presence of so noted an artist — turned upon art,
and finally upon a notorious picture, called " Nana,"
of a naked woman on a couch, that was quite a sen-
sation in London. It has been seen on this side.

Loud were the expressions of approval. Whistler
remained silent.



"What do you think of 'Nana,' Mr. Whistler?" asked
the distinguished lady at his right.

" Is it not wonderful ? — so life-like," exclaimed the distin-
guished lady at his left.

But Whistler, apparently spellbound by the bird before
him, was silent.

" But, Mr. Whistler, you have not told us what you think
about ' Nana, ' ' ' said the distinguished lady opposite.

At bay at last, he said :

"Really, madam, you know, it is quite — presumptious —
quite, for one who — who is simply, as one might say, a
painter, and therefore — you know — not entitled to opinions
— to express himself in the presence of so — so many distin-
guished connoisseurs ; but — since you demand my opinion —
as a highwayman would a purse — I yield to superior strength
and say — with all deference — that ' Nana' is — trash. ' '

"Oh !"

"Oh, Mr. Whistler."

" But have you seen it ?"


" Then, how can you say it is trash ?"

' ' It must be — it — is so — popular. ' '

" Will you go to see it ?"

' ' That is not necessary. ' '

" But I want you to go with me to-morrow to see ' Nana.' "
And the charming lady on his right insisted so imperiously
that he should go with her and several of the company who
wished to be of the party, that he yielded, saying, however :

" On one condition."

"What is it?"

* ' That you will go with me afterward, to the National Gal-
lery and see some pictures I am sure you have never seen."

" Some new ones ?"

" To you — yes."

It was agreed ; and the following day Whistler with several
of the party paid each a shilling to see " Nana" stretched at


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

ease under a strong light at the far end of a dark room. It
might have been a painting or ' ' Nana' ' herself, the realism
was so gross.

All save Whistler were in raptures over the wondrous
thing. He was silent.

Then they went to the National Gallery, and he took them
before one great portrait after another.

" But we have seen these before," chorused the voices.

" Impossible !" exclaimed Whistler.

" Oh, yes, many times," sang the voices.

" But you do not like them ; you detest them."

" Oh, no ! no ! no !"

"But they are not at all like 'Nana' ; they haven't
'Nana's' wonderful flesh-tones, 'Nana's' beautiful skin;
are not so life-like as ' Nana,' and beside ' Nana' you must
consider them as poor, wretched daubs."

And so he took them from one masterpiece to another,
repeating before each one their raptures over ' ' Nana' ' until
they were silent. Then he said :

" I have shown you some pictures that are considered
good by those whose opinions are precious, and you have
not found in one a single characteristic that you admired in
•Nana,' and you yourselves would not admit her to this
glorious company ; therefore, again I say, ' Nana' is —

In the sense, therefore, that he presented a care-
less, trivial, or cynical side to the public and a
serious side to his art, Whistler was a poser, and
during his idle hours he had the habit of amusing
himself at the expense of any one who crossed his
path. And why not? Did not the world try so
hard to amuse itself at his expense ? Were his
feelings spared ? Was aught of ridicule or insult
that human ingenuity could devise withheld ?



But his opponents were so clumsy that, save as he
himself preserved their crude repartees, only his epi-
grammatic utterances are remembered ; and therefore
he has all the blame for the controversies, while the
truth is that, considering the flood of opprobrium
poured out upon him in print and in speech, he said
very little, took but occasional notice of his assailants.
All he said fills but a portion of a small book, — the
"Gentle Art," — while his opponents have the bal-
ance ; and if all adverse personal comments of a des-
picable nature were gathered together from both
sides of the Atlantic, they would make up many
closely-printed volumes.

For a man who could write so well, Whistler ex-
ercised great restraint in writing so little, but — that
little !

And yet it is a pity, from one point of view, that
he wrote at all ; his art did not need it, and in the
way of general estimation and recognition suffers
not a little on account of it.

For twenty-odd years the public has been amused,
startled, and irritated by the letters and utterances
which make up "The Gentle Art of Making Ene-
mies," and it will be many a long day before they
are so far forgotten that Whistler's art will be judged
wholly upon its merits.

If the "Gentle Art" did not exist as it does in its
harmony in brown, English literature would lack a
volume which is in itself a bit of art and unique of
its kind. There is nothing at all like it, and only


OF JAMES A. McNeill whistler

Whistler could have done it. The book is a perfect
expression of one side of his many-sided and extra-
ordinary personality, and as such is therefore a work
of art, and, at the same time, material which cannot
be spared if the man is to be thoroughly understood ;
but it reveals the side which is least worth under-
standing, it accentuates traits which are inconsequen-
tial, and it gives the public an entirely erroneous
impression, because the public find it easy to buy
and read the book, but difficult to so much as see
the pictures, and quite impossible to understand them
when they do see them.

In Whistler's life the writing of the few lines and
the putting together of the matter contained in the
"Gentle Art" occupied an almost infinitesimal frac-
tion of his leisure hours, whereas for fifty years he
painted, etched, and lithographed industriously ; yet,
so far as the public of England and America is con-
cerned, his controversies overshadow his art ; while
to the French, who happily could not read the book,
he is known only as an artist.

Criticism of art afforded Whistler a world of
amusement, and the art critic was his especial aver-

"That writers should destroy writings to the
benefit of writing" seemed to him just, but that
writers should criticise painting seemed to him
altogether illogical.

And he quotes the critic of the Times, who said
of Velasquez's "Las Menimas" that it was "slovenly



in execution, poor in color, — being little but a com-
bination of neutral grays and ugly in its forms."

And he shows how the same great critic praised a
Turner that turned out to be no Turner. When
this particular critic died, a few years ago. Whistler
sorrowfully said, " I have hardly a warm personal
enemy left."

And he showed how one said that Daubigny had
neither drawing nor color, and another that the works
of Corot to the first impression of an Englishman
"are the sketches of an amateur," and another that
everything Courbet touches "becomes unpleasant."

All these by the most eminent critics in the land,
— men whose say-so in days gone by made and un-
made, for the time being, the reputations of artists.

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Online LibraryArthur Jerome EddyRecollections and impressions of James A. McNeill Whistler → online text (page 9 of 18)