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James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the first American to achieve international prominence as an artist, died at the age of 69 in London on July 17 *, 1903. Barely a dozen mourners attended the graveside service—by that time, scarcely any of those he called his “close enemies” survived. In this country, where we usually jump at an excuse to trumpet one of our own, few noted the centenary of his death. There were no overarching retrospectives; no major reassessments. That might be due to a practical obstacle—the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which houses one of the largest collections of Whistler’s work, is by charter not permitted either to lend its holdings or to borrow others. Whatever the reason, it is probably a good thing. Had we done more, we almost certainly would have gotten him wrong.
Whistler’s signet was the butterfly—in his paintings it replaced his signature. And for Americans, Whistler remains a cipher, emerging from the smog of the past as indistinctly as a boat on the Thames in one of his nocturnes. The problem, I think, is twofold: Whistler barely lived in his homeland, and he is remembered more for his prancing ways than for his work. Having been raised largely in Russia, he resided in the United States for only about six years, leaving at age 20 to study and live in Europe. He “chose” not to have been born in Lowell, Mass., and as an expatriate in London and Paris he posed as a Southerner. He was an export product—of us, yet unlike us.
He was also a pugilist with a knockout wit. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Whistler’s was the pattern to which the arch dandy Oscar Wilde cut his cloth. After hearing an especially piquant quip, Wilde exclaimed, “Jimmy, I wish I had said that.” To which Whistler replied, “You will, Oscar, you will.” Yet the things Whistler said and wrote only tended to confuse the issue of his nationality. He had a rather un-American scorn for the truth, though, like many homegrown Yankees, his was a completely self-invented persona. “To begin with,” he once wrote, “I am not an Englishman.” In fact, he was a third-generation West Point man (though expelled for poor grades). With Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: The Artist’s Mother, a portrait of a stern, Puritan matron, he created one of the most recognizable American paintings. Yet that iconic work hangs—and always has hung—in Paris *.(Today, it hangs in the Musee D’Orsay.)
That he was an expatriate still doesn’t entirely explain our failure to give Whistler his due. Ironically, John Butler Yeats (William Butler’s father) attributed our ambivalence to what is arguably the most American of Whistler’s qualities, his individualism: “All his life Whistler committed the unpardonable offense of being himself; sprung of a nation where the vox populi is the vox dei, he hated the vox populi.”
A bohemian fop, Whistler strutted his independence like a peacock. He wore a monocle and sported a cane, though he was often broke. Our visual artists are manly (Jackson Pollock) or commercial (Andy Warhol). When the Frick Collection in New York fastened on Whistler’s proto-metrosexual proclivities, presenting, earlier this year, “Whistler, Women, and Fashion,” it didn’t exactly restore his virility. But the show did point out how far ahead of his time he was: He refused to acknowledge any barriers between art and life—a notion very much in vogue today—and was one of the first to connect the worlds of art and attire. According to the curator, Whistler sought “the transformation of dress into art,” going so far as to design the tea gown worn by the wife of a wealthy patron in Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland. The originator, in the Anglophone world, of art for art’s sake, he worked as a decorator, printmaker, author, and designer, as well as a painter. And, taking self-promotion to new heights, he even beat his Parisian friends (Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, et al.) in discovering ways to publicize his work outside the academy. For example, he used the infamous Peacock Room, designed and built in 1876-77 at the behest of Frances Leyland’s husband, to advance his name and innovative style. While Leyland was out of town, Whistler invited crowds of influential collectors, dealers, critics, and other tastemakers to the wildly ornate dining area, replete with leather walls painted in green and gold leaf, which harmonized with his paintings.
Outraged by the room’s extravagance, Leyland railed against Whistler and the two fell out. You can now find the Peacock Room reconstructed at the Freer Gallery of Art, where another excellent show, “Mr. Whistler’s Galleries,” explores his considerable skills as an exhibition designer. It remains on view through April 4, 2004. The Freer houses one of the largest and most important collections of Whistler’s art, including many paintings from his “Japonisme” phase (Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen; La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine). Although other Westerners appreciated Asian—and, in particular, Japanese—art at the time, Whistler’s canvases were the first to register its influence. The succinct, abbreviated manner of Japanese art eventually led Whistler to develop the miasmic land and seascapes, the nocturnes, that presage so much modern abstract painting. Americans may consider these works quintessentially English—there was, the old saying goes, no fog on the Thames until Whistler painted it—but the English did not. The critic John Ruskin wrote of, among other canvases, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket: “Mr Whistler’s brave attempt to enlighten the Britishers is lost to us. … But we can’t despair, remembering as we do that the Whistlerian idea arose in the land of progress and Presidents, the land where Barnum blows and Whitman catalogues.” Even that squinty prude Ruskin caught Whistler’s American accents. (True to his litigious American roots, Whistler later sued Ruskin for libeling him in a review.)
American viewers generally don’t rush out to exhibitions of prints, yet it was in Whistler’s etchings—pioneering works of Realism—that he displayed his cold-eyed, masculine side. One could have seen virtually his entire graphic output in two shows this year: “Poetry of Sight,” at the New York Public Library, offered the full spectrum of his etchings, from the hard realism of the early years through the deliquescent late works; while “Whistler and His Circle in Venice,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, concentrated on his sojourn in Italy and his influence on such notable American artists as John Singer Sargent and Alfred Stieglitz.
Ultimately, Whistler wasn’t just a Realist or, as some have claimed, a tonal painter; and he wasn’t merely a society portraitist or a designer or decorator. Americans have always been most at ease with single-image artists, those with a signature style (again, one thinks of Pollock’s drips, Warhol’s Marilyns). Whistler was all over the place, literally and metaphorically. Had we paid him more attention this year, we probably would have turned him into the guy who painted his mother.
Corrections, Dec. 22, 2003: This article originally stated that Whistler died on July 22, 1903. In fact, Whistler died on July 17; his funeral was held July 22. (Return to the corrected sentence.) Kunitz also mistakenly said James Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: “always has hung” in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. In fact, the author meant that the painting has always hung in Paris; it has not always been hung in the Musee D’Orsay. (Return to the corrected sentence.)