James Abbot McNeil Whistler

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864, Oil on Panel, 19.7 x 27” (50.1 x 68.5cm), Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.

Last night while I was reading E.B. White’s essays in One Man’s Meat my iTunes started playing a cut from the Scissor Sisters and suddenly I couldn’t follow either one. I could not reconcile the gentle, dachshund-loving Maine farmer’s words with the glitzy, pop-glam stylings of a gay band from the other side of Mars. I doubt if Andy White ever had a lover who “choked him in the back seat of a riverboat,” nor do I think he would have shared that information if he had. These two very different artists simply did not go together; there was no harmony.

Whistler was all about harmony. He borrowed heavily from the language of music and skirted the edges of impressionism for some of his “nocturnes,” but his very best, and certainly most famous works, involved people and their place within a scheme of color. He believed a piece of art should exist entirely independently of its source material, and should enrich and satisfy simply from the pleasure derived by viewing it. He painted both genre pieces and carefully staged portraits, but he did not distinguish between them. To Whistler it was always about balance and line and color.

The painting above is hardly his most famous work, but it is my favorite. It hints at the amazing complexity and depth of its artist with the rich, profligate colors somehow held in check by the balance of that golden, enchanted screen and the bright, almost pastel watercolors she is sorting through. Whistler was an extravagant man of enormous appetites and ferocious wit. This was a man from whom Oscar Wilde actually and admittedly stole quips. He loved and quarreled with most of the better intellects of his day. He resented his mother for joining him in London thereby ruining his long-held hedonistic lifestyle, yet so adored her that he added her maiden name to his own in later years and used her as the subject of his pièce de résistance.

Arrangement in Grey and Black, 1871, Oil on Canvas, 56.8 x 63.9” (144.3 x 162.4cm), Musee d’Orsay, Paris

The colors here are somber, puritan, consistent with the piety of the subject. Despite your first impression, you see that Mother is not quite rigid in this chair. She is scooted forward a little, perhaps to accommodate a small bustle. The geometric frames and pictures, the floor the walls, the columnar quality of the drape play against the soft, fluid line of the woman and her dress. She is at an incline, and the more you look the less likely her posture seems, the less realistic. She seems too long for the picture. The white contrasts with the stark black of her dress. It is what it is, but the white bits are so dainty, so lacy and ladylike they strike me almost as a tease. Despite her dark ethic, this is a woman who wants to make sure you regard her as a woman, as feminine and perhaps desirable.  White and dark can be seductive, too. Perhaps Whistler is giving his mother a little wink, conspiring with her to show that the apple drops not quite so far from the tree as we thought.

Arrangement in Black, No. 5 (Portrait of Lady Meux), 1881, Oil on Canvas, Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu

In later years, Whistler found himself in difficult financial straits, and accepted a commission to do a portrait of Lady Meux. Lady Meux was a wealthy socialite who would like it very much if the rest of the world could forget that she used to be a banjo playing barmaid and prostitute named Val Reese, and she felt being painted by the great Whistler would help her reputation. I like to think that Whistler thought about his mother when he painted this. She died in January of this same year, and so her passing would be much with him. This time he has composed a picture wholly in black and white. This woman stands in the black of oblivion, yet she shines in the darkness, still in those pious colors, but daring, vibrant, and saucy, a balance to the black and white of Whistler’s Mother. The two portraits are in harmony. Freud speculated about men and their subconscious fantasies of mother prostitutes. Who knows?

Perhaps it is easier to find harmony than we think. Maybe I was wrong. Now I can almost see it, see E.B. White grumping his way out to find that his brooder stove has kept its flame all through the night, to find all his chicks whole and happy and warm, his eggs unbroken, his sheep fat and toasty in the winter quarters, everything black and white and gray in the weak light, but a big grin on the face of Wilbur’s father as he grabs a bucket to fetch some feed and joyous song rings out in the 1940s air of Maine:

I don’t feel like dancin’, dancin’/Even if I find nothin’ better to do/I don’t feel like dancin’, dancin’/Why’d you break it down when I’m not in the mood?/Don’t feel like dancin’, dancin’/I’d rather be home with the one in the bed ‘til dawn with you.

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5 Responses to James Abbot McNeil Whistler

  1. I had not seen this first picture and it almost took my breath away…and even better, your comments are brilliant, they enhance the viewing experience beautifully. I find a lot of art critics commentary mostly annoying… interpretations of the artists intentions and work almost silly. Not so in your case. I sincerely thank you.

  2. CMStewart says:

    Whistler’s talent shines in “Arrangement in Black, No. 5.” Lady Meux has Val Reese’s face.
    I would suggest a pairing with the Scissor Sisters song “Filthy/Gorgeous.”

  3. bird of time says:

    I admit I have not looked for other Whistler paintings after the Arrangement etc. I never really liked it. (It is gray). But after looking at the other two, I have changed my mind. It isn’t the harmony though that attracts me, it is the delicacy I find so beautiful. As you say with the mother, the delicacy must be the result of that ferocious wit which tells the truth. Do you suppose it is a concious perception or one hidden in the midst of a labyrinthine mind?
    You consistently surprise and delight me with these paintings and your comments.

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