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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

James McNeil Whistler

( Originally Published 1932 )



This book would be incomplete without mentioning in detail something about James McNeil Whistler, one of the greatest artists since Rembrandt.

He was by birth an American, born at Lowell, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1834. His father, Major John Whistler, who had married as his second wife Anna M'Neil, of an old Southern family, was ordered to Russia to fill the post of construction engineer on a railway. So at the age of nine, Whistler went to St. Petersburg, where he remained until fifteen. Then, upon the death of his father, he and his mother returned to America and when seventeen he was entered at West Point. Though both his father and grandfather were military men, Whistler showed no inclination for such a life and it was with great satisfaction that he obtained permission to leave the Academy in favor of a French Art School, Marc Gleyre's studio in Paris. He was just twenty when he sailed for France never to return to the United States again. Under Marc Gleyre he studied for two years. Thanks to his early education in Russia he spoke French fluently and not being hindered by language, as most students are at first, he took up his work with much enthusiasm and delighted in the comradeship of such fellow-students as Degas, Alphonse Legros, Fantin-Latour, Du Maurier and Manet.

These years were not spent all in study. He was the gayest of the students and led in any prank or mischief that was afoot. Yet it was during this same time that he etched the little "French Set", published in his twenty-fourth year. This set was of thirteen plates, the subjects being characters and scenes from the life about him, while on trips through Alsace, Lorraine, and Germany. One etching, "La Mere Gerard" is beautifully done. It is of an old French woman who had once been keeper of a Reading Room but, at the time Whistler found her, she had descended to the humble occupation of selling flowers at the door of the Bal Bullier. Whistler drew her wearing a dark tippet and one of those little bonnets that ties under the chin. Every line of this picture is daintily drawn and executed with great simplicity.

The following year Whistler went to London, to live with his brother-in-law, Seymour Haden, whose etchings won knighthood for him. Soon after he had settled there, we learn that he sent two of his Thames etchings to the Royal Academy. It was really the Thames Set that made him famous as an etcher. The busy Thames, with its many barges and boats going up and down, the wharves crowded with people rushing to and fro, the stately bridges, all this was a part of London life; and the public saw in these etchings, because of their accurate minute detail, historical as well as artistic value. It was Whistler's practice to bring his copper plate to the scene he intended drawing. He worked directly upon the copper, without making any preliminary sketches. We are told that Whistler, while drawing the famous plate, "Rotherhithe", sat in a repair shop on the bank of the river. A brick fell from above, just missing his head and caused his arm to swerve, thus making that long perpendicular mark across the plate that we see in the print.

In such plates as the "Black Lion Wharf", "Thames Warehouses" and "Limehouse", he faithfully recorded such minute details as different widths of board, lettering of signs, crooked window sashes, the ropes and rings and pulleys of machinery; he catches the idler loafing around the waterfront, glimpses of trees in the distance, quaintly constructed houses along the river bank. Who but Whistler could pick out from an everyday scene, and sketch on copper, those fundamental elements that make for the beauty of the long perspective of the shore and the curve of the bridge that contrasts with it and yet seems to repeat and flow into it,-for the charming proportion between the clear patch of sky and the broad sweep of the water? In short, he made a memorandum of the scene before him, by a few simple lines on his plate that included all of the little details which immediately fix the picture accurately in mind.

These early etchings were promptly appreciated, meeting with much greater success than did his paintings. The Royal Academy exhibited some of them in 1859 and continued to do so until 1864. In 1879, despite the waning popularity of his paintings, his reputation grew as an etcher. The Fine Art Society of London sent him to Venice for the purpose of making a set of twelve scenes of Venice. In fourteen months he had etched forty plates, from which the Fine Art So88 ciety selected their twelve. The edition of each print was a hundred impressions and the series sold at fifty guineas. Commercially, the venture was highly successful, but the art critics were loud in their destructive criticism. Ruskin, the dictator of the art world in England at that time, in his "Stones of Venice" had recalled to the public the past glories of Venice, with all the pomp and splendor of the Doge's palaces.

No wonder the people were puzzled and almost offended by the quiet, unpretentious little scenes of that still fascinating city as it is todayl Whistler hunted out for us the Italian women, "The beadstringers" sitting in the doorway doing their work; the numerous little bridges over the narrow, side canals, the glass-blowers and the long, low skyline of roofs,-Venice divested and impoverished, yet maintaining its quaint charm. During the winter of 1883 Whistler determined to hold a second exhibition of Venetian scenes. He had prepared a catalogue containing quotations from some of the most hostile critics that had appeared at the time of the first exhibition. Visitors read in their catalogues, under the names of prominent writers, that the etchings of Mr. Whistler had little to recommend them save the eccentricity of their titles; there was a general absence of tone, that he had produced too much for his reputation. Thus amused and already somewhat influenced by the praise of some appreciative collectors, there was a decided reaction,-the public discovered that it really liked the second series. As a result of this success, in 1886 the latest Venetian setthe famous "Twenty-Six" of which twenty-one are Venetian scenes and the other five English subjects-was published and the printing was done by Whistler himself. With this publication he added to his catalogue his famous eleven "Propositions", setting forth his ideas on the production of large plates, use of wide margins, u..d sketching in miniature scenes termed "remarque" along the margins,-a common practice at that time, particularly among the reputed masters of the art.

Whistler foresaw damaging effects to the art if unreasonable collectors held out a curious pleasure for a considerable quantity of paper. That explains why he trimmed all his later etchings close, leaving only a little bar for the butterfly signature and the printer's mark. After the third exhibition of his Venice etchings, he turned to scenes of Belgium, France, England, and Holland. They were drawings of tiny shops, boulevards and gardens, and little children. Of special note in this group is the magnificent "Sunflower, Rue des Beaux Arts", and also a small plate, "An Eagle". In 1887 he made a little series of plates called "Naval Review", drawings of the Review at Spithead. He presented them to Queen Victoria in a portfolio of his own design on the occasion of her first jubilee. Many of the subjects of Whistler's etchings are portraits; frequently they are of his own talented friends such as Swinburne, Becquet and Druoet, the sculptors; the Leyland family, and even portraits of himself.

Mr. Thomas Way, an old friend of Whistler, in 1887 drew the artist's attention to lithography. Daumier, Corot, Delacroix, and Whistler's friend of student days, Fantin-Latour, had used this medium most successfully. Hence Whistler decided to experiment with this process. His lithographs, like his etchings are simple, delightful scenes of Brittany, Devonshire, Paris and London. He succeeds each time in catching the very spirit of the bustling activity of the towns in their everyday life, as in "Little London", and "Savoy Pigeons",-in showing little scenes of human interest, as "Tete-a-Tete in the Garden", and "The Clock-Makers". We find in his lithographs a softer charm than in the etchings, maybe because of the softer quality of the medium used, or because Whistler, as a beginner, was not so definite and sharp in his treatment.

He was not satisfied until he had perfectly mastered this new art and, in 1896, after a period of twenty years he referred to himself as a beginner. "The Early Morning" shows how he labored to get that same effect of the air and water that he had attained with his oils and with etching. In the first state the scene is a river at Battersea, buildings are along the river's edge, a bridge is seen in the distance, and in the foreground are some barges.

In the first state the clouds in the sky are heavy with sharp edges, and both the sky and water are murky. In the second state he succeeded in removing the edges and heavy dark tones, until he got the magnificent effect of light stealing into the air, with soft mists of dawn hanging over the horizon. He changed the highest point of light from the sky at the left to the shirt of a longshoreman in the foreground at the right, thus completing the suggested pattern of light playing through the entire composition. We might also mention here that Whistler also did a few colored lithographs, "Yellow House-Lannion" being about the best known.

I have only treated of Whistler in relation to Black and White. However, we must not forget that he was as successful with the brush and palette. In fact it was in answer to Ruskin's and other criticisms of some of his earlier paintings that he wrote "Whistler vs. Ruskin", "Art and Art Critics", "Ten O'Clock", a lecture originally delivered to crowded houses in London, Oxford, and Cambridge,-"The Gentle Art of Making Enemies" and other pamphlets and letters explain his theories on art. They were written in very fine prose, are brilliant, caustic and witty. After his quarrel with Ruskin critics were silenced; his reputation was secure and the world began to give him the praise and homage that his work demanded. He went on etching and painting until the last days of his life,-his hands never lost their skill.

In the spring of 1903 his health began to fail, and on July 17, when seventy years old, he died in London, the city he so loved that he had adopted it as his own.



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