Listen to this article
Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake, by Daniel Sutherland, Yale, RRP£25/$40, 432 pages
An astonishing 20 years have passed since Richard Dorment and Margaret MacDonald’s exhibition of James McNeill Whistler at London’s Tate Gallery, and yet the thrill of the work – the remarkable “Nocturnes” of the Thames, the portraits, the nude drawings, the lithographs and etchings – is as fresh in my mind as if it had been yesterday.
It is more than time for a new biography of this great artist, American by birth but for most of his life a European, who left behind such a range of beautiful artworks and who was also, in the judgment of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, “a little viper”. Daniel Sutherland, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas, has given us a warts-and-all portrait of Whistler, the man, the work and his times.
The father was an engineer, who was hired by the tsar of Russia to build the Moscow to St Petersburg railway. He died young and his widow Anna, destined to be the most famous artist’s model since the Mona Lisa, took the family back to America for a short spell. Anna’s tiny firstborn son James, after education at private school in England, was placed at the West Point military academy. His nickname, Curley, revealed his unwillingness to get his hair cut, and his 190 “demerits” after only a year of officer training revealed, even to the ambitious Anna, that her son was not cut out to be a soldier.
Recognising her son’s talent as a draughtsman, Anna allowed him to go to Paris to train as an artist. He threw himself into the bohemian life, which Sutherland evokes with brio. When, in passing, Whistler mentioned his mother to one of his Left Bank painter friends, he elicited the response: “Your mother? Who would have thought of you having a mother, Jimmy.”
By the time he had come to live in London, and befriended the Rossettis, Swinburne and Edward Burne-Jones, the pattern of Whistler’s life had become established: the production of stunning art, a steady stream of mistresses and the wilful destruction of friendships. Not for nothing did Whistler entitle a witty volume of essays, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890). He was a belligerent little man, and whenever Sutherland introduces a new character – Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Sickert, Oscar Wilde – we know it will only be a matter of pages before Whistler picks a fight. George du Maurier, lampooning Whistler in his bestselling novel Trilby (1894), hit a bull’s-eye with the sentence: “The moment his friendship left off, his enmity began at once.”
Some of the duelling was funny, as when Whistler was advised to “let sleeping Oscars lie” and replied: “Ah, he won’t sleep and he will lie!” Some was embarrassing, as when he sued John Ruskin for libel after the great man accused Whistler, in his celebrated “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket”, of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”.
Both men were made to look ridiculous by the trial, which ended with Whistler awarded a farthing in damages. But it was good for business. When Whistler moved to Tite Street in Chelsea, he said he wanted to paint “all the fashionables”. He had already “done” Chelsea’s most famous inhabitant, Thomas Carlyle, who considered him “the most absurd creature on the face of the earth”, and by the end of his career Whistler was able to command prodigious sums for his portraits.
Bohemianism is inherently snobbish, because its practitioners believe they are more interesting than the conventional majority. Whistler made it his creed, to scandalise the middlebrow and middle-minded. His famous “aesthetic” lecture, “The Ten O’Clock”, claimed that art itself was a science. The lecture had a huge influenced on Marcel Proust, whose friend Robert de Montesquiou (model of the Baron de Charlus in In Search of Lost Time) was one of Whistler’s best subjects – Sutherland detects Whistler in Proust’s fictitious painter, Elstir.
But what went down well in Paris eventually irritated even the most aesthetic of Englishmen. Swinburne, who had raved about the young Whistler, came to feel his theorising was a confused jumble of “truths and semi-truths”. Swinburne’s friend Theodore Watts-Dunton thought Whistler “a bit of a charlatan”, a view that most of his English ex-friends came to share.
Does this spoil our enjoyment of the paintings? Not really. Whistler was no more quarrelsome than Caravaggio, whose life was a series of fisticuffs. We wouldn’t have liked him but this does not diminish the awe inspired by those moonlit renditions of the misty Thames.
There are a few howlers here. Queen Victoria’s birthday was the 24th not the 25th May. Whistler’s funeral took place at Chelsea Old Church, but by calling it “St Luke’s, Chelsea Old Church”, the author conflates two sacred edifices.
AN Wilson is author of ‘The Victorians’ (Arrow)
Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published