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baited and Insulted that at length he wastes too
much energy on his unworthy assailants, who shall
blame him?

Whatever heat Is engendered by the passage of
a star to its ordained orbit should be attributed to
the resistance of the medium through which it passes.
It would be wiser, of course, and nobler for the
master to climb to Shakespeare's level and learn
never to

. . . prefer his injuries to his heart.
To bring it into danger.


But it is only the very greatest who are able to
take "the buffets and rewards" of life "with equal
thanks," and, after all, in this world-old quarrel
between the genius-teacher and his hearers the chief
fault is always with the hearers.

The British public would do well now to consider
their ways while it may yet be time, and begin to
treat their artists and writers, the modern seers and
prophets, with some consideration.

At heart Englishmen are all Robinson Crusoes,
adventurers and colonizers. They are full of ad-
miration for the man of action and of respect for
the athletic virtues, and especially for obstinate
courage. But they have no inkling of the qualities
necessary to an artist, and they treat the greatest of
the sons of men with a contemptuous pity that is
really a measure of their own blind insensitiveness
and want of imagination. They read of an explorer's
struggling to reach the Pole with breathless en-
thusiasm and mourn his death in tears, thrilling with
emulation, but they read of Ruskin's brainless and
insulting attack on Whistler with delighted amuse-
ment, and when the crowd of academic nonentities
ran together in the law courts to bait the man of
genius their sympathy was all given to the crowd of
envious dullards.

They know not what they do.

Let us try for a moment to look at the matter
from the standpoint of the artist. Almost the first


thing that struck one In Whistler's attitude was the
fact that though he was of Anglo-Saxon race and
had lived by preference in London he missed no
opportunity of girding at English estimates and
English standards of value. He was proudly con-
scious that his artistic ideal was at variance with
English conceptions of art, and the conventional
English view of painting as a sort of colored photo-
graph of some beautiful scene or person excited in
him nothing but pity and contempt. And this dis-
agreement spread into all departments of life. He
despised the materialism of the race, the courage
that was usually self-interested and all too seldom
chivalric, and, above all, the honors showered on
respectable greedy mediocrities. He illustrated
Shakespeare's wonderful phrase in the Timon:

'Tis well with every land to be at odds.

Whistler was at odds with both England and
America, was indeed an exile and pariah everywhere
in this world, lonely and despised as the great artist
seems fated to be.

Nevertheless his high courage and wit held to the
end. When he was nearing seventy the English
failures and hypocritical pretences in the South Afri-
can war excited him to bitter gibing. After retreat-
ing from Spion Kop,the British Commander-in-Chief
Sir Redvers Duller published a despatch so self-


congratulatory that It might have followed a victory.
At the end he summed up the whole affair by saying,
*'. . . and so we retired without losing a gun
or a mule or an ammunition wagon." Whistler loved
to quote the words, adding, "or a moment's time."

One evening In Paris he was seated outside the
Cafe de la Palx when a Camelot passed by shouting
his paper : "La Presse, La Presse! Grande Defaite
des Anglais! 10,000 hommes tiies! Voyez La
Pressed' Whistler bought a copy, to the huge dis-
gust of an Englishman sitting near him. Whistler
read the account half aloud till his choleric neighbor
could stand It no longer:

"I beg your pardon, sir," he said to Whistler, "but
surely you must know that such a defeat Is all im-
aginary — a He, sir, that's what It Is!"

"Very likely," rejoined Whistler In his silkiest
tones. "Very likely; but then, you see, It makes such
very pleasant reading!"

And so he revenged himself on the Philistines.

In later life Whistler concentrated his affections
on his wife, and when she was taken from him his
chief interest in living died. He was too keen-
sighted to have any Illusions about a life beyond
the grave: the undiscovered country to him was
blank annihilation, and this black background cast
a shadow over the world and intensified the misery
of personal loss. A daring spirit, set to sadness
and scorn of mediocrity, the mainspring in him was


always a high resolve to do the best with his extraor-
dinary endowment.

No hero, no leader of men has ever displayed a
more intense devotion to the ideal, or a more des-
perate resolve to do his uttermost at all costs.
Whistler may stand as a type of the great artist
for many a year to come. A man has no foes so
obstinate as those within him, and more than other
men the artist is plagued with those infernal adver-
saries: he is filled to the mouth with greeds and
vanities and passions. The ordinary man wants com-
forts and security in life; the artist wants these and
all the luxuries as well — bronzes, ivories, enamels,
paintings, armors, tapestries, vellumed books, prints
: — everything curious and beautiful — and he wants
them as aids to his own striving. Where another
would be rich, he is poor. And while borne in this
way hellwards toward self-gratification by an urging
which is intertwined with what is noblest in him, he
must at all costs resist the devil, and more than other
men give himself to the ideal in order to bring his
work as near perfection as possible.

Take the conflict at its simplest. Whistler saw
that the more personal his art was, the better it
became, and with the intuitive certainty of the great
artist he began with a master's economy to simplify
the symbol. At once the academicians burst out at
him: "He can't draw," just as Reynolds talked
of Blake. It was Whistler the innovator. Whistler


at his best that was most hated. It Is hard when
at variance with every one to persevere in a desperate
undertaking. Even a Columbus is shaken in his
resolve by the storm of sneers and Insults on this
side, hatred and contempt on that. And at the same
time the artist must possess a nobler temper than
is required of the explorer or captain. He must
not only believe in himself absolutely and go on
working in spite of insult and hatred, but he must
work joyously, for If once he falls to anger or bitter-
ness with his surroundings, his work will suffer.

Let us try to see Whistler's character In the proper
light in connection with his work, and let us take
the extremest example of his so-called conceit. One
remembers the story of the lady who coupled him
with Velasquez, assuring him that the only two
sacred names to her in the history of art were
Whistler and Velasquez.

"True, true, dear lady," remarked Whistler, "but
why drag In Velasquez?"

Every one laughs at this and lifts eyebrows at
the conceit; but there is nothing conceited in it.
"PFhy drag in Velasquez?" is merited reproof.
"Velasquez is dead; his work done; gone beyond
our praise or blame for ever; but I, Whistler, am
here doing the modern work: why couple me with
the dead? why drag in Velasquez?"

Even if we take this as conceit. Whistler's power
of self-criticism was at least as vigorous. The other


day a letter of his was sold at Sotheby's, a letter to
Way, his prniter, about some lithographs of his por-
trait of Count Robert de Montesquieu: here is his
judgment of his own work:

The portrait is damnable! I don't mean the printing,
which is even as good as the thing to be j^rinted was bad;
and that is saying a lot. No, my drawing or sketch or
whatever you choose is damnable, and no more like the
superb original than if it had been done by my worst and
most incompetent enemy. I hope to heaven that no one has
seen it. Now wipe off the stone at once, at once sending
me one proof on the commonest of paper of its destroyed
state, and also every trial proof you may have taken, that
I may myself burn all. There must be no record of this
abomination ! It is neither for catalogue nor posterity,
and is the folly of proposing to produce the same master-
piece twice over. Why should one ? Ridiculous ! Now,
on the other hand, the last little draped figure is delight-
ful, and beautifully printed of course.

What do you think, reader, of this assured self-
praise and passionate, complete self-condemnation?
And even now perhaps you don't understand the
inflexible conscience of the artist. Whistler needed
money to live and work: here is a bank-note, so to

''Tear it up," he cries, "the work is not my best:
I'll not live by it, tear it up, let no replica of it be
seen : I'll go hungry rather than give anything less
than my best."


No adventurer, no Columbus ever showed such
high resolve, such noble courage. Let us come to a
final test.

The English law made a world-wide benefactor a
bankrupt at fifty; Whistler would not or could not
pay Ruskin's law costs and so his home was sold up;
his pictures given away for a song: his household
goods all dispersed and lost. His mother was weak
and needed the comforts of money. He took her
to a good home in a watering-place, and then, paint-
box in hand, sallied forth to Venice when past middle
age to build up another home, and incidentally a
new fame. And the artist's courage is not that des-
perate unhappy dour resolution that a Carlyle looked
on as the ideal : it is a smiling, joyous, happy valiance.
Whistler knew that happiness was an essential of
his art, and he kept his laughing wit undisturbed.
The story of it is one of the great stories of the
world. Nothing finer, nothing more heroic has been
told of man. His creditors had put a man in pos-
session of his house in Tite Street, Chelsea. Whistler
clothed him decently and used him as a servant. At
the end of the week the man came to him to be

"I have nothing," said Whistler, "I thought the
creditors paid you. At the moment I can't pay you."

"What am I to do?" cried the man, "my family
is hard up, they want the money."

"Very terrible," exclaimed Whistler, "terrible.


I'm sorry. I'll get you the money by next Saturday :
I'll paint something."

"But that won't do," said the man, "I must have
some help now."

"I can think of nothing," said Jimmy, resolved
to pawn something rather than not help : then the
quick intelligence rippled into a smile, "I can think
of nothing, but why not put a man In possession,
then you'll be able to get along as I do."

That's how the artist has to face life: the wit is
exceptional, but the heroism is common enough.
Take it in another way. The pains of motherhood
are excruciating; but suppose the mother were told
that she must conceive in joy and bring forth not
with groans but with smiles and witty stories, and
at the same time use every endeavor to make each
child fairer than the previous one; what should we
think of her trial? There Is no courage in the
world, no fortitude to be compared with that of the

To me Whistler Is the perfect type of the great
creative artist. I think of him as essentially modest.
Asked by a foolish Attorney-General how he came
to put £200 on a picture he could paint In a day,
he replied: "Because it took me a lifetime to win
to that mastery." The barrister who often got more
for doing nothing found fault with the answer. He
and the silly judge both agreed that the picture was
not worth the money: this very picture, condemned


by Ruskin and jeered at by barrister, judge, and
jury, has had an eventful history. It belonged at
that time to Mr. Graham. A few years after, at
his sale at Christie's it was knocked down amid hisses
to a Mr. Harrison for sixty pounds. A little later
still, at the close of the London Whistler Memorial
Exhibition, It was bought for two thousand guineas
by the National Arts Collection Fund, presented to
the nation, and now hangs in the National Collection
at the Tate Gallery. Surely, when they come to
understanding the English will begin to honor the
great creative artists and not the gnat critics and
penguin professors.



AS a result of nearly twenty years' friendship I
have written a life of Oscar Wilde. The pub-
lishers of this book of "Portraits" wish me to sketch
him here in a dozen pages. Replicas in art are un-
thinkable: even a hen cannot lay two eggs exactly
alike; but I can take some pages from my book here
and there, and so give some idea of the man and his
excelling humor, though in such narrow limits I
cannot trust myself to speak of his deeper self and
tragic fate. Here is a snapshot, so to speak, with
apologies to the reader, who will have to use imagi-
nation to stuff out the meagre outline.

In the early eighties I met Oscar Wilde con-
tinually, now at the theatre, now in some society
drawing-room; most often, I think, at Mrs. Jeune's
(afterwards Lady St. Helier). His appearance was
not in his favor; there was something oily and fat
about him that repelled me. Of course, being very
young I tried to give my repugnance a moral founda-
tion; fleshly indulgence and laziness, I said to myself,
were written all over him. The snatches of his
monologues which I caught from time to time seemed



to me to consist chiefly of epigrams almost mechan-
ically constructed of proverbs and familiar sayings
turned upside down. One of Balzac's characters, it
will be remembered, practised this form of humor.
The desire to astonish and dazzle; the love of the
uncommon for Its own sake, were so evident that
I shrugged my shoulders and avoided him. One
evening, however, at Mrs. Jeune's, I got to know
him better. At the very door Mrs. Jeune came up
to me:

"Have you ever met Mr. Oscar Wilde? You
ought to know him: he is so dehghtfuUy clever, so

I went with her and was formally introduced to
him. He looked like a Roman Emperor of the
decadence; he was over six feet in height, and both
broad and thick-set. He shook hands in a limp
way I disliked; his hands were flabby; greasy; his
skin looked bilious and dirty. He had a trick which
I noticed even then, which grew on him later, of
pulling his jowl with his right hand as he spoke,
and his jowl was already fat and pouchy. He wore
a great green scarab ring on one finger. He was
overdressed rather than well dressed; his clothes
fitted him too tightly; he was too stout. His ap-
pearance filled me with distaste. I lay stress on this
physical repulsion because I think most people felt
it, and because it is a tribute to the fascination of


the man that he should have overcome the first Im-
pression so completely and so quickly. I don't
remember what we talked about, but I noticed almost
immediately that his grey eyes were finely expressive ;
in turn vivacious, laughing, sympathetic; always
beautiful. The carven mouth, too, with its heavy,
chiselled, almost colorless lips, had a certain charm
in spite of a black front tooth which showed ignobly.

We had a certain interest in each other, an interest
of curiosity, for I remember that he led the way
almost immediately Into the inner drawing-room, in
order, as he said, to talk at ease in some seclusion.
The conversation ended by my asking him to lunch
next day.

At this time he was a superb talker, more brilliant
than any I have ever heard In England, but nothing
like what he became later in life. His talk soon
made me forget his repellant physical peculiarities;
indeed, I soon lost sight of them so completely that
I have wondered since how I could have been so
disagreeably affected by them. There was an ex-
traordinary physical vivacity and geniality in the
man, a winning charm in his gaiety, and lightning
quick intelligence. His enthusiasms too were infec-
tious. Every mental question Interested him, espe-
cially if it had anything to do with art or literature.
His whole face lit up as he spoke, and one saw noth-
ing but his soulful eyes, heard nothing but his musical


tenor voice; he was indeed what the French call a
charm eur.

In the World's School. London, i 880-1 884.

Before Oscar Wilde left Oxford he described
himself as a "Professor of Esthetics and Critic of
Art." He had already dipped into his little patri-
mony to pay for his undergraduate trip to Greece
and Italy with Mahaffy, and he could not conceal
from himself that he would soon have to live on
what he could earn by his pen in London — a few
pounds a week. But then he was a poet, and had
boundless confidence in his own ability. To the
artist nature the present is everything; just for today
he resolved that he would live as he had always
lived; so he travelled first class to London and
bought all the books and papers that could amuse or
distract him: "Give me the luxuries," he used to
say, "and anyone can have the necessaries."

Of course, in the background of his mind there
were serious misgivings — ghosts that would not be
laid. Long afterwards he told me that his father's
death and the smallness of his patrimony had been
a heavy blow to him. He encouraged himself, how-
ever, at the moment by dwelling on his brother's
comparative success as a journalist In London, and
waved aside fears and doubts as unworthy.


It Is to his credit that at first he tried to cut down
expenses and live laborious days. He took a couple
of furnished rooms in Salisbury Street, off the Strand,
a very Grub Street for a man of fashion, and began
to work at journalism while getting together a book
of poems for publication. His journahsm at first
was anything but successful. It was his misfortune
to appeal only to the best heads, and good heads
are not numerous anywhere. His appeal, too, was
still academic and derivative. His brother Willie
with his commoner sympathies appeared to be better
equipped for this work. But Oscar had from the
first a certain social success.

As soon as he reached London he stepped boldly
into the limelight, going to all "first nights" and
taking the floor on all occasions. He was not only
an admirable talker, but he was invariably smiling,
eager, full of life and the joy of living, and, above
all, given to unmeasured praise of whatever and
whoever pleased him. This gift of enthusiastic ad-
miration was not only his most engaging characteris-
tic, but also, perhaps, the chief evidence of his ex-
traordinary ability. It was certainly, too, the quality
which served him best all through his life. He went
about declaring that Mrs. Langtry was more beauti-
ful than the "Venus of Milo," and Lady Archie
Campbell more charming than Rosalind, and Mr.
Whistler an incomparable artist. Such enthusiasm
in a young and brilliant man was unexpected and


delightful, and doors were thrown open to him in
many sets. Those who praise passionately are gen-
erally welcome guests, and if Oscar could not praise
he shrugged his shoulders and kept silent; scarcely
a bitter word ever fell from those smiling lips. No
tactics could have been more successful in England
than his native gift of radiant good-humor and
enthusiasm. He got to know not only all the actors
and actresses, but the chief patrons and frequenters
of the theatre : Lord Lytton, Lady Shrewsbury,
Gladys, Lady Lonsdale (afterwards Lady de Grey),
and Mrs. Jeune; and, on the other hand, Tennyson,
Hardy, Meredith, Browning, Swinburne, and Mat-
thew Arnold — all Bohemia, in fact, and all that
part of Mayfair which cares for the things of the

But though he went out a great deal and met a
great many distinguished people, and won a certain
popularity, his social success put no money in his
purse. It even forced him to spend money; for the
constant applause of his hearers gave him self-con-
fidence. He began to talk more and write less, and
cabs and gloves and flowers cost money. He was
soon compelled to mortgage his little property in

At the same time, he was still nobly intent on
bettering his mind, and in London he found far
wiser teachers than in Oxford, Matthew Arnold, and
Morris, and in especial Whistler. Morris and


Arnold, though greatly overestimated during their
lives, had hardly any message for the men of their
own time. Morris went for his ideals to an imagi-
nary past, and what he taught and praised was often
totally unsuited to modern conditions. Arnold was
an academic critic and dilettante poet, his views of
life those of the snobbish goody-goody schoolmaster,
his influence a scholarly and cloistered influence, an
evil influence for Oscar Wilde confirming his book-
ish bias. Whistler, on the other hand, was a student
of life, a master of ironic persiflage, and a great
artist to boot: he had not only assimilated much
of the newest thought of the time, but with the
alchemy of genius had transmuted it and made it
his own. He was, indeed, worth listening to.

Oscar sat at his feet and assimilated as much as he
could of the new aesthetic gospel. He even ventured
to annex some of the master's theories and telling
stories, and thus came into conflict with his teacher.

Everyone must remember one instance of this and
Whistler's use of it. The art critic of The Times had
come to see an exhibition of Whistler's pictures.
Filled with an undue sense of his own importance
he buttonholed the master and pointing to one pic-
ture said: "That's good, first-rate, a lovely bit of
color; but that, you know," he went on, jerking his
finger over his shoulder at another picture; "that's
bad, drawing all wrong . . . bad!"

"My dear fellow," cried Whistler, "you must


never say that that painting's good or that bad,
never! Good and bad are not terms to be used by
you ; but say, I like this, and I dislike that, and you'll
be within your right. And now come and have a
whiskey for you're sure to like that."

Carried away by the witty fling, Oscar cried:

"I wish I had said that."

"You will, Oscar, you will," came Whistler's light-
ning thrust.

Of all the personal influences which went to the
moulding of Oscar Wilde's talent, that of Whistler
was by far the most important; Whistler taught him
the value of wit and the power a consciousness of
genius and a knowledge of men lend to the artist,
taught him, too, that singularity of appearance
counts doubly in a democracy of clothes. But
neither his own talent, nor the stories and ideas he
borrowed from Whistler helped him to earn money:
the conquest of London seemed further off and more
Improbable than ever. Where a Whistler had
failed to win, how could he, or indeed anyone, be
sure of success?

A weaker professor of aesthetics would have been
discouraged by the monetary and other difficulties
of his position, and would have lost heart at the
outset before the impenetrable blank wall of Eng-
lish philistinism and contempt. But Oscar Wilde
was conscious of great ability and was driven by an
inordinate vanity. Instead of diminishing his pre-


tensions In the face of opposition, he Increased them.
He began to go abroad in the evening In knee
breeches and silk stockings, wearing strange flowers
In his coat — green carnations and gilded lilies —
while talking about Baudelaire, whose name even
was unfamiliar, as a world poet, and proclaiming
the strange creed that "nothing succeeds like ex-
cess." Very soon his name was In every one's mouth,
fashionable London talked of him and discussed
him at a thousand tea-tables. For one invitation he
had received before, he now received a dozen; he
became a celebrity.

Of course, he was still sneered at by the many
as a mere poseur; it still seemed to be all Lombard
Street to a china orange that he would be beaten
down under the myriad trampling feet of English
Indifference and contempt.

But If the artistic movement was laughed at and
scorned by the many as a craze, a select few stood
firm, and soon the steadfast minority began to sway
the majority, as Is usually the case. Oscar Wilde
became the prophet of an esoteric cult. But notori-
ety even did not solve the monetary question, which

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Online LibraryFrank HarrisContemporary portraits → online text (page 6 of 20)