Whistler Past the Graveyard: America’s Most Artistic Artist

Ever since reading the novel I, James McNeill Whistler by Lawrence Williams in 1972, the hardworking staff has been a fanboy of James Abbott MacNeill Whistler, the 19th century American expatriate artist who embodied “art for art’s (and my) sake.”

(Just for the record, here’s the first – and only – paragraph of the autobiography Whistler himself wrote:

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 12.56.06 PM

(Williams dubbed his “autobiography” Second Try.)

While some believe that Whistler is America’s greatest artist (he seems to be in a photo finish with Winslow Homer), can we not agree that the Butterfly is certainly America’s most artistic artist.

From Ann Landi’s piece in this month’s ARTNews:

Whistler: The Original Art Star

A century before Warhol, Whistler treated his own persona as a work of art. In the Peacock Room, he created an installation that expressed his bitterness about the ties between art and money.

In Darren Waterston’s version of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s famed Peacock Room, an installation called Filthy 09_14_FE_WHISTLER_06_600Lucre (2013–14), at MASS MoCA through January, decay and ruin have ravaged the premises.

Gold stalactites drip from the undersides of shelves; a puddle of gold, looking like glistening urine, pools on the floor; exotic ceramics, similar to those collected by the owner of the original room, are cracked or broken into shards; the shelves on which these objects are displayed are rickety to the point of collapse. And the centerpiece of the room, a copy of Whistler’s painting The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863–65) is hideously defaced by a dark, tarry mass that covers the figure’s lovely face and neck.

Whistler’s Peacock Room (blessedly rescued and relocated by artficionado Charles Freer) is Ground Zero in the endless war between art and commerce.

[T]he story of the Peacock Room exposes the tensions that can arise when new money hires outsize egos. In 1876, Frederick R. Leyland, a British shipping magnate, commissioned the architect Thomas Jeckyll to design a display space in his London dining room for his Qing-dynasty porcelain collection. Because Whistler’s portrayal of a Pre-Raphaelite beauty in a peach-colored kimono hung over the mantel, Jeckyll consulted the artist about the room’s color scheme. When Jeckyll fell ill and Leyland left for Liverpool on business, Whistler took charge, adding many more design details, like the gilded peacocks on the shutters.

That went over like the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Leyland was flabbergasted when he saw Whistler’s embellishments, and further outraged by the bill the artist presented for 2,000 guineas (about $200,000 today). He agreed to pay only half of that sum, which prompted the artist to add more decorations, including two savage peacocks facing off against a ground strewn with silver shillings. Leyland threatened to horsewhip him if he ever appeared at the house again, but he kept Whistler’s work intact.

Even worse, Leyland paid Whistler in British pounds, not the guineas artists normally received. Thus:




That image aside, Daniel E. Sutherland, whose Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake is the first biography of the artist in over twenty years, says “You can’t look at most of his work and not be impressed by the delicacy and the beauty of nearly everything he did.” And you can’t look at most of Whistler’s life and not be impressed by how well he marketed himself – from his trademark grey forelock to the butterfly monogram he used as a signature to his outrageous (and costly) feud with John Ruskin.

And yet . . .

N01959With Whistler begins a liberation of painting from storytelling, in particular from the moralizing and tendentious inclinations of the Pre- Raphaelites so popular in Victorian England. His “Nocturnes” prefigure full-blown abstraction, as does his way of titling some of his paintings: the official label for his portrait of his mother is Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (1871).

Landi’s ARTNews piece also mentions the recent PBS documentary James McNeill Whistler: The Case for Beauty, which dubs him “the original art star.”

Original, absolutely. And with the current flurry of attention, a star once again.

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4 Responses to Whistler Past the Graveyard: America’s Most Artistic Artist

  1. Larry says:

    Enjoyed your latest Whistler dispatch. As you do doubt are aware, he was a son of Lowell who couldn’t get out of town soon enough. Bette Davis and Jack Kerouac are perhaps the city’s other two greatest contributors to American arts and culture.

    Here’s more about the Leyland affair, including some good images of Whistler works, from a recent Liverpool show:

  2. Curmudgeon says:

    I could sit in the Peacock Room for weeks and never get tired.

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