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and he glanced away from the picture to see If we
understood. As no one answered he Insisted: "If
you paint a young girl, youth should scent the room:
a thinker, thoughts should be In the air; an aroma
of the personality. . . . And with all that It
should be a picture, a pattern, a harmony only a
painter could conceive. ... I sometimes say
an arrangement in black and white, or blue and
gold, don't ye know?" The eyes gimletted one:
"Do they understand?" the eyes seemed to ask, "the
dullards — do they even know that each art has Its
own grammar and its own aim?"

This first real talk showed me that Whistler was
an original artist, a force to be reckoned with, and
at the same time he was sympathetic to me; his
courage and quickness were obvious; his conceit justi-
fied, his vanity harmless, even his frankness seemed
to argue a kindly nature.

His famous Ten o'clock lecture confirmed my
judgment, and put him definitely on a pedestal, he
talked with the sincerity and authority of a great
artist. The perky figure on the platform; the ex-
quisitely appropriate speech — now quick, pointed
sentences darting like rapier-thrusts, now the linking
melody of rhythmic phrases — all alike excellent.
The inimitable cheeky delivery of his attacks made
him delightfully real and vital; the insight and
authority of his message held one: a modern master,


I said to myself, human to the heart and yet a

Again and again his humor flashed; the Experts
"sombre of mien and wise with the wisdom of books
speculating in much writing upon the great
worth of bad work . . ." ; the Critic who "never
sees the masterpiece at all" : and finally the Preacher
"appointed! . . . Sage of the Universities
learned In many matters, and of much
experience in all, save his subject . . . bringing
powers of persuasion and polish of language to
prove — nothing. ..."

The most brilliant persiflage of English pedantry
ever written, and written by a painter I

And when he spoke of his art and of the artist
as the high-priest of the mysteries of Beauty, a grave
emotion colored his words, and the sentences ar-
ranged themselves cunningly, evoking unforgettable

"The artist," he said, "does not confine himself
to purposeless copying, without thought, each blade
of grass, as commended by the Inconsequent, but, in
the long curve of the narrow leaf, corrected by the
straight tall stem, he learns how grace is wedded
to dignity, how strength enhances sweetness, that
elegance shall be the result. ..."

"Through his brain, as through the last alembic,
is distilled the refined essence of that thought which


began with the Gods, and which they left him to
carry out."

"Set apart by them to complete their works, he
produces that wondrous thing called the masterpiece,
which surpasses in perfection all that they have con-
trived in what is called Nature; and the Gods stand
by and marvel, and perceive how far more beautiful
is the Venus of Melos than was their own Eve."

That lecture won me to complete sympathy; the
comments of the audience and the Press exasperated
me: no one seemed to see that the speech was the
greatest ever heard in London. Even Oscar Wilde
pooh-poohed my praise of it as exaggerated; it had,
however, made one convert.

Whistler's fiery combativeness now excited in me
nothing but approval. He's had a pretty hard
time, I thought, as all great men are sure to have
everywhere, and most of all in England, where the
pillory is specially reserved for great artists. He's
evidently "the wicked animal" of the well-known
French proverb, "who defends himself when he's
attacked," and he has been attacked so often, and
his courage is so high that he's always ready to take
the offensive. In the Ten o'clock he gave his own
portrait: "The Artist has always cause to be merry
at the 'pompous pretention and solemn silliness' that
surrounds him, for Art and Joy go together with
bold openness, and high head and ready hand — fear-
ing naught."


One evening he dined with me and talked with
extraordinary animation and eloquence about his
art. I noticed that he was a different man when
dining almost alone and when there was a large
party. By himself he was without affectation or
aggressiveness, but as soon as there was an audience
he wanted to take the floor and monopolize the con-

On another occasion there were half a dozen of
us, and Whistler held forth about his discovery of
the Thames, as he called it. A personage at the
table rather resented the suggestion that no one had
ever seen the beauty in mists and fogs because It
had not been painted before, and the little difference
grew somewhat acrid. At length the great man
remarked that "conceit was no proof of ability."
Whistler took him up sharply:

"Quite right, conceit is what we call the other
fellow's self-respect, don't ye know?"

"It's the excessive egotism I dislike," grumbled
the great person, turning away and beginning
pointedly to speak to the host.

Some one said something encouraging to Whistler,
who remarked in the air:

"Yes, yes, he forgot himself, but then he is quite
right to forget what isn't worth remembering."

Whistler was certainly "a first-rate fighting man."
Often he attacked without justification. I may be
allowed to give one characteristic example when I


could give twenty. Every one knows the bare facts
about Swinburne's famous article on his works which
appeared in The Fortnighlly Review for June, 1888.

Whistler's biographers, the Pennells, have decided
that "it cannot be denied that he had every reason
for seeing a challenge in Swinburne's article. He
was stung to the quick, but even in his anger he
couldn't forget the friendship of the past."

The tmth is, and there can be no breach of con-
fidence now in publishing the fact, that Whistler
asked for the article. Mr. Theodore Watts was
approached and told that Whistler would be very
glad indeed if Swinburne, who had known his work
for years, would say what he thought about it. It
was pointed out that Whistler hadn't the position
that his great talent deserved, and that it would be
an act of kindness on Swinburne's part to help him
to wider recognition. Swinburne was good enough
to do what was asked of him.

Immediately after the article appeared came
Whistler's contemptuous note in The JForld, in
which, criticizing Swinburne, he spoke of the "scien-
tific irrelevancies and solemn popularities of a serious
and ungrateful Sage, whose mind was not narrowed
by knowledge."

The last paragraph of his letter ran:

"Thank you, my dear! I have lost a confrere;
but then, I have found an acquaintance — one Alger-
non Swinburne — 'outsider' — Putney."


It was an outrageous response to an act of kind-
ness, and, naturally enough, Swinburne was very
much annoyed.

At the time only a few knew of the dignified
kind letter Whistler wrote to Swinburne before pub-
lishing his sneer in The World, the letter published
in The Gentle Art under the title Et tu Brute, in
which he talks to Swinburne In the proper spirit:

*'Who are you, deserting your Muse, that you
should insult my Goddess with familiarity and the
manners of approach common to the reasoners in
the market-place? . . . Shall I be brought to
the bar by my own blood, and be borne false witness
against before the plebeian people?"

He requested Swinburne to stick to his fine poetry
and not "stray about blindly in his brother's flower-
beds and bruise himself!"

But good as this private letter is, it still seems
to me not to be justified, for Whistler had asked for
the article and should have been content with It

After all, Swinburne praised Whistler's painting
warmly, as far as he could understand it, and at
the time Swinburne as a poet stood far higher In
popular esteem than Whistler as a painter. Swin-
burne's paper unquestionably did Whistler a very
considerable service, and his good intent was 111
rewarded by that contemptuous bitter letter in Tlie
World which was all the public knew of the matter.

I didn't overestimate the importance of the affair.


but when next I met Whistler, which happened to be
at a friend's table, I suppose he must have felt that
I was not so enthusiastically cordial as I had been,
for he attacked me with a spice of malevolence.
He waited, I remember, till the dinner was finished
and the ladies had retired. When the host came
up to our end of the table he had Whistler on his
right just opposite me. Suddenly Whistler took
up something I had said.

"Your appointment as editor of The Fortnightly
set every one guessing," he began: "is he by any
chance a man of genius, or just another of the able
editors, don't ye know ! always to be found by the
dozen In merry England? Well, we all wondered
for a little while."

The guests were all eyes and ears: Whistler's
reputation being established.

"Of course, every one knew how a genius would
edit such a review after Mr. John Morley. First
of all would come a most astonishing number; a
reckless criticism of some great painter by a poet;
then a poem by a painter, something novel, don't
ye know, the caricature of a bishop by Carlo Pelli-
grini, something unexpected — amazing. . . ."

"All the world would rush to buy the next month's
number; but there would be none to be found; the
editor would be resting or gone to Monte Carlo.
The month after, another gorgeous surprise ! But
no! you've not done it in the brilliant erratic way


of genius. Every month the review appears regu-
larly, just what one looks for, a work of high-class
English mediocrity: lamentable, you know, quite

Every one laughed as the master repeated again
and again scornfully, "high-class mediocrity."

For some time I tried to parry the attack, cover-
ing myself with my youth and inexperience; but
Whistler only laughed triumphantly, repeating,
"honest mediocrity, well-meaning, don't ye know!

industrious and all that; but " and the forefinger

pointed the barb.

At length anger gave me better counsel.

"Strange," I said, "how your views of art, Master,
are echoed in Paris. I was talking with Degas the
other day; you know, he, too, is a great painter with
a tongue like a whip. I asked him what he thought
of English painters, and he made fun of them: he
wouldn't hear of Leighton, or Mlllais, or any of
them, and at last I said, 'But what do you think of
Whistler? Whistler surely is a master?'

" 'Vistlaire?' he repeated, 'connais pas: jamais
entendu ce nom-la. Que fait-il?'

"Of course I tried to explain how great you were,
Master; described your marvellous color-schemes,
amazing arrangements: impressions like Hokusai ;
but Degas only shrugged his shoulders: 'Connais
pas — Vistlaire, connais pas du tout!'

"So at last in despair I told him that you, too,


were a wit, as he was, with a bitter tongue, an ex-
traordinary talent of speech, the wittiest talker in

" 'Dommage,' Degas broke in, 'he should paint
with his tongue, then he might be a genius.' "

Every one laughed, delighted to see the biter bit;
but it was some time before the cordial relations
between Whistler and myself were restored. It
seemed to me that he attacked his friends as eagerly
as his enemies, and I avoided him, not wishing to
quarrel with a man of genius, whose work I could
not help admiring.

A year or so later, however, we met again casually,
and I asked him to lunch, and he accepted smilingly,
without a trace of bitterness, en hon escrimeur.

If he were inclined to sacrifice friendship too
cheaply for a biting jest or witty word, he was still
more ready for the sake of an intellectual triumph
to make enemies of the indifferent or even of those
willing to like him.

An instance occurs to me: A rich man, rather
a bore, had wanted to meet him for some time. At
length he got himself invited by Mr. Fletcher Moul-
ton, now Lord Moulton, the Judge. When they
went into the dining-room the rich man found himself
right opposite Whistler who was on his host's right;
but for some time, to his annoyance, he couldn't get
a chance to place a word. Whistler talked almost
without ceasing. After some joke of the Master,


however, there came a pause and Immediately the
bore seized the opportunity; leaning forward with
uplifted forefinger he began:

"One word, Mr. Whistler, one word! Today I
passed your house and "

Quick as a flash, Whistler interrupted:

"Thank you, thank you !" and began to relate
another incident.

The intellectual speed shown in the retort was as
astonishing as the rudeness was unpardonable. But
If ungenerous in Intercourse with ordinary people.
Whistler was just as quick to appreciate ability even
in his enemies. Wherever he found good work,
whether in art or literature, he praised it whole-
heartedly. It was hardly to be expected that this
dainty and exquisite Muse should admire the cruel
realism of Degas, or the bronze made flesh of Rodin ;
but Whistler welcomed nearly every high artistic
quality, however different from his own striving.
He praised Manet and Puvis de Chavannes en-
thusiastically, and seemed utterly devoid of jealousy.
Through his admiration of Chinese pottery and
bronzes and Japanese prints and pictures Whistler
led the way to that wider understanding of Art
which Is a characteristic of our day. And some of
the younger men like Beardsley owed him the frank-
est and most generous recognition.

Alexander Harrison, the painter, has given the
most understanding appreciation of Whistler's real


nature. As an example of pure insight it stands
alone :

"I have nev er known a man of more sincere and
genuine impulse even in ordinary human relations,
and I am convinced that no man ever existed who
could have been more easily controlled on lines of
response to a 'fair and square* appreciation of his
genuine qualities. When off his guard he was often
a pathetic kid, and I have spotted him in bashful
moods, although it would be hard to convince the
bourgeois of this. Wit, pathos, gentleness, affection,
audacity, acridity, tenacity were brought instantly to
the sensitive surface like a flash, by rough contact."

I think perhaps Whistler's pettiest fault was that
he had a poor memory for kindness done. But, after
all, ingratitude is the mark of all the tribes of
man, and I dare say he was no more forgetful
of benefits than the rest of us.

For a good many years I saw him from time to
time casually. Now he lunched with me ; now dined :
once or twice I dined with him. But our relations
were never intimate. We belonged to different
generations, and I couldn't be a disciple and sit
at the feet of any Gamaliel.

One day when he was dining with me he told
me that the Glasgow Corporation was trying to
buy his portrait of Carlyle. I was exceedingly glad
to hear it, and said so: it was the only thing for
them to do. He went on to confess with contemptu-


ous bitterness that they were hagghng with him over
the price. I asked him how much he wanted, and
he replied a thousand guineas, I begged him not
to take less; assured him I could find some one
who would give him a thousand guineas for the
picture if the tradesmen refused it. He was very
anxious, pathetically anxious I thought, to know
whether he could rely on the money: he seemed a
little dispirited. I told him he could make his mind
easy on the matter : the money would be forthcoming.
On this he brightened up remarkably, and declared
that the fillip was all he needed; he knew the Scotch-
men wanted the picture and were only bargaining;
and a couple of days later he came and told me that
the canny Scots had agreed to pay the thousand,
and all was settled.

Whistler was always inclined to be combative and
his love of fighting grew in maturity with his skill
in verbal fencing. I have sometimes thought that
he was so willing to fight because he had already
painted all the best pictures in him and was no longer
pregnant with new conceptions.

My next talk with Whistler illustrates this. I
went to call on him in Paris in the rue du Bac.
The modest house has been described by others,
the exquisite yet effective simplicity of the decora-
tion, and the charming garden impressed every one.
At length the master was properly lodged, and might
be expected to do some great picture.


I found him In a state of dancing excitement over
Trilby. I couldn't understand his rage with Du
Maurier, even when he told me that Du Maurier
had formerly been a friend. The quarrel seemed
to me altogether trivial. I felt it unworthy of a
great man like Whistler to allow himself to be
plagued and maddened at the buzzing of such a
bluebottle. But I had to listen to the whole story
from A to Z, and how It ended with the apology of
the publishers, and with Du Maurier's changing his
sketch of Whistler Into some bald-headed gentleman
called Antony, and Whistler's characteristic quip :

"I wired to them over in America, 'Compliments
and complete approval of author's new and obscure
friend, Bald Antony.' "

He had wasted what seemed to me an unconscion-
able amount of time and energy over this unworthy
attack. Men had treated him contemptuously for
so many years, life had been so unjust to him that
his temper had got raw; every touch smarted, and
he was up In arms and eager to fight to the death
for a casual rub.

When next I called on him In the rue du Bac
I found him In the throes of another combat; the
quarrel with Sir William Eden over his wife's por-
trait. All the world knows the details : how George
Moore introduced the baronet to Whistler to paint
the portrait of Lady Eden; and how Sir William
Eden took It upon himself to pay the price he


thought fixed, without consulting the artist, who
had done, not a pastel, as was first arranged, but
a very charming portrait In oils of Lady Eden, a
study in brown and gold.

It would have been more dignified of Whistler
to have paid no attention to the baronet and his
attempt to slip his "valentine" of a hundred guineas
Into the artist's pocket; but once again Whistler's
combativeness came into play; he persisted in seeing
intentional insult in everything, and In spite of all
one could do, fought on to the bitter end: he couldn't
speak of the baronet without mentioning his "brown
boots." At length he went so far as to destroy his
own work, and the result of the sittings which Lady
Eden, who certainly was an Innocent person, had
granted him: painted out her face, and went Into
court after court over the matter, only to be con-
demned at the end as in the beginning.

He begged me, I remember, to write on the
matter, and to please him I did write an article In
The Saturday Review, taking his side, which from
a high point of view was perhaps not justified, and
was certainly unwise; for thereby I made myself
bitter enemies without affirming Whistler's unstable

A later meeting with Whistler was destined to
be unpleasant. I had again and again heard him
speak of Mr. Walter Sickert with liking, and even
appreciation, as a capable craftsman.


Accordingly, when Mr. SIckert came to me with
an article about lithographs, setting forth that
Whistler's hthographs were made on paper, and
should not be called lithographs, I looked upon it
as the trivial correction of a friend, and didn't dream
that Whistler would feel hurt, much less insulted.

Forthwith, he or Mr. Pennell brought an action
against me as editor of The Saturday Review. I
could scarcely believe that the matter was serious,
but I soon found that Whistler was prosecuting the
affair with his usual energy.

One day, meeting Mr. Heinemann, with whom
Whistler happened to be living at the time, I told
him how silly the whole matter was, and how un-
pleasant: adding that I regretted it all, and would
not for the world have hurt Whistler in any way.

Mr. Heinemann said he would try to settle the
quarrel, and a little later very kindly invited me to
meet Whistler at dinner. I went, and took the
occasion to tell Whistler just what I had told Mr.
Heinemann, that the whole dispute was trivial, that
I wouldn't willingly have done anything to hurt him,
and if I had suspected any malice in the matter
I should never have published the article. He told
me I must get Sickert to apologize. I replied that
I couldn't ask Sickert to apologize; he would be sure
to refuse. I pointed out that in his desire to hit
Sickert he was really hitting me, who, after all, had
been a friend.


"It can't be helped," he said perkily, "it'll have
to go on then: it'll have to go on."

I shrugged my shoulders; wilful man must have
his way.

The trial was full of amusing incidents. A sculp-
tor, Mr. Alfred Gilbert, showed such virulence of
personal enmity to me that the judge ordered him
to stand down; and Whistler had as his chief witness
Mr. Sidney Colvin, of the British Museum, who
aforetime had been his butt, and was always coupled
by him with 'Arry. The jury, after being out two
hours, brought in a verdict of £50, and Whistler
won his first law case, this time against one who
had always been a friend and admirer. He didn't
damage Sickert in any way, but, if his crowing over
the result was any consolation to him, I am glad
he had it.

I must find room here for a gibe or two of Whis-
tler's which so far as I know have never been pub-
lished, though they are both characteristic and witty
without being malicious. When Mr. Theodore
Watts, Swinburne's friend and housemate, took the
name of Dunton, Whistler wrote him a post card:
"Theodore, what's Dunton?"

One day in a second-hand bookshop he came upon
a copy of his "Gentle Art" which he had given to
someone after inscribing on the title-page :

"With the regards of the author."

It had evidently been sold for some few pence.


Whistler bought it, wrote in one word and sent it
again to the ungrateful friend. The inscription now

*'With the renewed regards of the author."
I have set down these acerbities and put them
so far as I could in a fair light, not because I have
the faintest wish to accentuate the little faults of
a great spirit, but simply because Whistler's prickli-
ness illustrates a truth too generally ignored. If
ever there was a talent which should have been
immediately appreciated in England it was the talent
of Jimmy Whistler. No people love pure beauty
as the English love it. Here was a man of genius
whose chief aim and striving was the beautiful. He
had no feeling for even greater things, none for
sublimity, none for the tragic fate which often over-
whelms the gifted, none for the great revolt which
is the essence of all higher spiritual life. But beauty
he loved with a passionate and exclusive devotion;
the English should, therefore, have welcomed him
with open arms. Yet instead of admiring the man
who was a genius after their own heart, they treated
him for thirty odd years with such indifference and
contempt that at length they bred bitterness in him,
and high disdain to balance their foolish injustice.

Towards the end of his life, when his powers to
all appearance were at their best, this great artist
and man of genius wasted his time and talent in
unworthy and absurd quarrellings. He neglected


his art and allowed his gift to humanity to be dimin-
ished in order to gratify his vanity and temper. He
had come to "his own and his own received him not,"
and he preferred to punish rather than to forgive.
I have no quarrel with him on this account. The
idea that the artist should accept slander and insult
in the guise of criticism with slavish submission is
worse than absurd. The wrong only begins to be
righted when revolt shows the aggressor that his
wrongdoing is apt to recoil on his own head. It Is
the duty of the artist or man of letters to teach
the critics and professors that reverence for their
betters is the proper attitude. No one finds fault
with Dante for distributing his enemies over the
deeper circles In hell, why should one condemn a
Whistler for pillorying 'Arry or Sidney Colvin, the
academic pedant? And if the artist has been so

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Online LibraryFrank HarrisContemporary portraits → online text (page 5 of 20)