You could say it runs in the family. The problem with Whistler is the same as the problem with "Whistler's Mother": They're both too celebrated to be understood.
The painting universally known as "Whistler's Mother" is so famous an image in the history of art that it's hard, really, to see it, even when you see it in person, as you can right now in Washington. From its Paris home, it's visiting as part of a grand retrospective at the National Gallery, "James McNeill Whistler" -- one of four Whistler-oriented shows now on view in the capital.
Seeing "Whistler's Mother," one is tempted to think, "Oh, I know that," and move on. But underneath the guise of a traditional portrait lies one of the artist's key works, embodying the ideas that made him a pioneer of modern art.
Similarly, we tend to think of Whistler the dandy, wit and figure of controversy, rather than Whistler the dedicated artist. Fellow American artist William Merritt Chase summed up the two sides of him thus:
"One was Whistler in public -- the fop, the cynic, the brilliant, flippant, vain and careless idler; the other was Whistler of the studio -- the earnest, tireless, somber worker, a very slave to his art, a bitter foe to all pretense and sham, an embodiment of simplicity almost to the point of diffidence, an incarnation of earnestness and sincerity of purpose."
Fortunately, the current Washington exhibits enable us to see the second Whistler in depth, especially the National Gallery retrospective, which covers his career in general, and the Freer Gallery's "Whistler and Japan," which deals with one of the principal influences upon his art.
He knew very early that he wanted to be an artist.
In 1844, when he was only 10, the Massachusetts-born son of a civil engineer was taking private art lessons in St. Petersburg, where his father was at work on the St. Petersburg-to-Moscow railroad. The following year, he enrolled in St. Petersburg's Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. In 1851, back in America after his father's death, he enrolled in West Point but managed to be dismissed after three years. He worked briefly in Baltimore, at the Ross Winans locomotive works, and then in Washington before sailing in 1855 for France and a life in art. He never returned to America.
In France, he first worked in a realist mode, producing a set of 12 etchings that launched him on a brilliant career as an etcher that would eventually earn him comparison with Rembrandt. In 1859, he moved to London, thereafter his home despite frequent stays in France. In his early London paintings, and in the widely respected "Thames Set" of etchings shown in the early 1860s, he was still working in an essentially realist mode. But he was coming under new influences.
One was English. Admiring the spontaneity of the English watercolorists, and the technique of the English portraitists (especially Gainsborough) who worked in thin glazes of paint, he took to thinning his oils to the point at which they flowed almost like watercolor. Sometimes he even allowed them to soak into the canvas the way watercolor soaks into paper. "Paint should not be applied thick," he said. "It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass." In this way he achieved the washy, atmospheric effects of the Thames paintings, which he called Nocturnes, such as "Nocturne: Blue and Gold -- Old Battersea Bridge."
Another major influence was Japanese art, and he was one of the first to exploit its implications. In works such as "Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony" (1864-1870) at the Freer, Whistler not only introduced Japanese subject matter. More to the point, he altered perspective, cropped his figures at the edge of the canvas, created asymmetrical compositions and introduced ambiguities of space. In these and other innovations, his work increasingly expressed the formal and abstract qualities of art over its representational and narrative qualities.
It was to emphasize these formal qualities that he termed his works "Nocturnes" and "Arrangements." He insisted that landscapes and even portraits were primarily formal arrangements rather than depictions of people or places. "By using the word 'Nocturne,' " he explained, "I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and colour first."
Interest in design
Drawing on another principle of Japanese art, which avoids distinctions between higher and lower forms of art, Whistler also took an intense interest in design and decorative arts, designing everything from the interiors of his living spaces to the frames of his pictures to books and exhibition installations.
Many of these elements of Whistler's modernist aesthetic are reflected within a traditional genre in the painting popularly known as "Whistler's Mother." Its official title, "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother" (1871), proclaims Whistler's intentions. This is a portrait, but it's a lot else besides.
The sitter's black dress with white lace recalls the portraits of Frans Hals, a bow to art history and a complement to the work's modern nature. The profiled figure's dress, thinly painted and virtually monochromatic, expresses neither its own texture nor the volume of the figure underneath so much as it acts as a design element. Its flat, irregular shape acts as a kind of mediator between the realistic representation of the face and the severe geometry of the overall composition.
Because the sitter's black-clad arm is virtually indistinguishable from the body of the dress, the effect is to make the hands grasping a handkerchief look like a decorative element unconnected to the person depicted. They become a sort of still life on black background, another part of the artist's "arrangement."
The beautiful curtain at the left occupies a major area of the picture, rivaling that of the subject herself, and is rendered in far more detail than the costume. It takes on the importance of a separate subject, raising the decorative element to a plane almost equal to that of the portrait.
On the wall, Whistler reproduces in paint one of his earlier etchings, "Black Lion Wharf" from the "Thames Set." But here it is only vaguely suggested, so that the artist's realist past fades into the background and the picture appears as essentially a geometric abstraction of triangles and rectangles, diagonals and horizontals, light areas alternating with dark.
There is certainly a portrait as well in this work, one that expresses the sitter's quiet fortitude in the face of age and loss. Part of Whistler's genius is that the abstract qualities of the work still allow room for its human characteristics.
It was created at the beginning of a decade of artistic success and financial ruin. His portraits and nocturnes of the 1870s are among his finest paintings, and this was also the decade of the Peacock Room, the magnificently decorated dining room, originally created by Whistler for a London house, that now resides at the Freer and forms part of the exhibition there.
In 1877, the critic John Ruskin, writing of Whistler's "Nocturne in Blue and Gold: The Falling Rocket" (1875), accused the artist of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued for libel and won, but was awarded only an insulting farthing in damages and forced to pay his own court costs. The following year he declared bankruptcy, and a group of London art dealers came to the rescue by commissioning a set of etchings of Venice.
In these superb etchings, Whistler eschewed the postcard views of Venice and combined technical mastery with keen observation of unorthodox locales and everyday life to evoke Venice's moods, atmospheres and times of day.
At the same time, he perfected his work in pastel, creating 100 examples that reveal a delicacy of touch almost too exquisite at times.
The 1880s and 1890s brought the artist increasing success and fame, highlighted by the sale of "Whistler's Mother" in 1891 to the French government, which placed it in the Musee du Luxembourg and eventually the Louvre.
A comprehensive look
He died in 1903. Since the memorial exhibits the following year, there have been no exhibits of the scope encompassed by the four shows now in Washington, comprising about 450 works in all. They offer a comprehensive look at his art, revealing him as a true original. He belonged to no particular school but was essentially modern in his outlook, in no way more so than in his RTC belief that art needs no justification outside itself -- that it need only "stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense."
In addition to the National Gallery retrospective and the Freer exhibit, the National Gallery also offers "Prints by James McNeill Whistler and His Contemporaries." It contains many important works but is too broad in approach, leaving no focused impression.
The National Portrait Gallery's "In Pursuit of the Butterfly: Portraits of James McNeill Whistler," on the other hand, is a good deal better than one might expect. You may not think you want to see 83 portraits of Whistler, but they are so varied, and Whistler was so endlessly fascinating, that they never pall. Here we have, for the most part, the public Whistler; but in the context of all the Whistler in Washington, the public image need not blind us to the artist's true worth.
What:"James McNeill Whistler" and "Prints by James McNeill Whistler and His Contemporaries"
Where: The National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue and Fourth Street Northwest, Washington
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. "Whistler" open through Aug. 20, "Prints" through Dec. 31.
Call: (202) 842-6690
What: "Whistler and Japan"
Where: Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive and 12th Street Southwest, Washington
When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Jan. 1
Call: (202) 357-2700
What: "In Pursuit of the Butterfly: Portraits of James McNeill Whistler"
Where: National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets Northwest, Washington
When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Aug. 13
Call: (202) 357-2700