Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Whistler, Bad Boy Artist

Matthew Sutherland:
It was one of James Abbott McNeill Whistler's "drolleries", when calling on friends, to stand outside the door of the drawing room he was about to enter and imitate the noises of a terrific scuffle. After the crescendo of violence had passed, he would promptly enter the room, debonair, alone and unscathed, to the great mystification of his hosts. The performance was characteristic: the delight in amazing, the mischievous humour, the careful stage-management, the solo entrance, the enjoyment of conflict, and the ability to get into a fight even when alone on an empty landing. . . .
Whistler defined himself by conflict. He was always in opposition to authority. Throughout a peripatetic childhood (in America, in Russia -- where his father, an engineer, was employed in building a railroad for the Tsar -- and in England) he was forever getting into trouble, relying on his abundant charm to soothe irate parents, relatives and teachers. At West Point -- to which he was sent, following in his father's footsteps -- he veered from one scrape to the next until finally failing a vital set of exams through "deficiency in chemistry." In later life he like to claim, "if Silicon had been a gas I should have been a major general."
In his first job -- for the US Coastal Survey -- he doodled sea monsters in the margins of his charts, and was repeatedly late for work. (His protestation that he was not actually late, it was merely that the office opened too early, was not appreciated.) Although he completed his art training among the ateliers of bohemian Paris . . . he chose to settle in London, not least, it would seem, because he enjoyed resenting the place and people.
From a review of a new Whistler biography in the TLS of April 4, 2014. You have to love that description of a man so oppositional he liked to get into fights when alone on an empty landing. Another thing Sutherland brings out is how hard Whistler worked at self promotion, causing his friend Degas to remark, "Really, you act as if you had no talent." But for Whistler as for so many other artists leading the artistic life was at least as important as the art that resulted.

From top, Symphony in White No. 2, 1864; The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, 1865; Harmony in Pink and Gray (Portrait of Lady Meux), 1881. More Whistler: Nocturnes, Drawings, the Peacock Room.

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