Master of the gentle art: Whistler was known for his charm and talent, but also his feuds. (Photo: Corbis)
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Foppery and flapdoodle: a life of James Whistler by Daniel E Sutherland

The US-born artist had talent to burn and a weakness for showmanship.

Whistler: a Life for Art’s Sake
Daniel E Sutherland
Yale University Press, 432pp, £25

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was a fascinator. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who became his friend, characterised him justly as “a master enchanter . . . able to be both precious and worldly”. The painter Henri Fantin-Latour, another friend, gave him precocious pride of place in his picture Homage to Delacroix (1864), in a company that included Baudelaire and Manet. “To have known Whistler and not be schooled in taste was all but unthinkable,” the worldly Baron Charlus informs the young Marcel in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Proust called him “Wisthler”, a reference to another admirer, J K Huysmans, who inscribed a copy of À rebours: “To M James Wisthler, l’un de ses fervents, J K Huysmans.”

Proust met the artist only once (and may have appropriated his gloves) but he had a profound feeling for the man and the work. “In my deliberately naked room there is only one work of art,” he confessed to a friend, “an excellent photograph of Wisthler’s Carlyle in a serpentine overcoat.” In Search of Lost Time also pays homage, not only in the Proustian painter Elstir – a composite portrait but a near anagram, however the name is arranged – but also in plain speech. “Well, there we are,” Charlus continues, “it is the hour, as Whistler says, when the bourgeois go to bed . . . the moment to start taking a look at the world. But you don’t even know who Whistler is.”

Do we know who Whistler was? We know that he was born in the US and brought up in Russia, where his father was a railway engineer for Tsar Nicholas I; that he moved to Paris to learn how to be an artist and then to London when he had become one. We know that he dressed like a dandy, talked like a wit and lived in style. We are familiar with his feuding and how he was awarded only a farthing in damages when he won a libel case against John Ruskin, who had accused him of “throwing a pot of paint in the public’s face”. And we understand that he was an aesthete who believed in art for art’s sake and that he tagged his pictures with a symbol of a butterfly with a sting for a tail – a reflection of his work and personality.

And, of course, we know that Whistler’s Mother is famous – “possibly the second most recognisable painting in western art after the Mona Lisa”, burbles the blurb for this book. Properly titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother, that celebrated portrait was nearly rejected by the jury of the Royal Academy when Whistler first sent it in.

Once launched, it was much loved. He was a seductive portraitist. Whistler’s women, from Milly Finch to Lady Archibald Campbell, fairly sizzle with style: bold, beautiful, bedazzling, they are not to be trifled with (though a little trifling might not go amiss, they seem to say, if anyone is up to it). His men are character studies of masterly refinement. Lithographs of Mallarmé and Sickert catch them to the whisker.

Whistler had talent to burn, a cultivated magnetism, a barrelful of self-regard and a weakness for showmanship. Much of his creative energy was dissipated in the gentle art of making enemies, to borrow the title of his autobiographical chronicle of feuds and polemics. Characteristically, Whistler wanted to call it Scalps!.

For all the foppery and flapdoodle, however, Whistler is difficult to fathom. Are we any the wiser (or perhaps the Wisthler) after reading Daniel E Sutherland’s life? The book is finely crafted and exhaustively researched. He makes large claims for his subject – “arguably the greatest [artist] of his generation” – and for his research. “I visited 30 libraries and archives in consulting the 200 manuscript collections and 2,000 books, catalogues, dissertations, articles, essays, newspapers and pamphlets that form the bedrock of my research on Whistler’s life,” he tells us, twice. Such assiduity yields copious notes but, regrettably, no bibliography.

The life is told punctiliously, evenly and chronologically; strictly cradle to grave. There is no afterlife, or only the faintest glimpse of one. Whistler himself was preoccupied with posterity. He asserted the right to edit the final proofs of a putative biography and also his entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. After his death, his friends and relations got down to some bitter feuding over the shape of his legacy.

Five years later, in 1908, came the first big strike on posterity: The Life of James McNeill Whistler, two volumes by two fervents, the husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell, a work that went into six revised editions over the next 17 years. Of this creeping barrage of biography, Sutherland observes merely, “Whether the Pennells got Whistler’s story right is another matter altogether, and still much debated. People who had known Whistler far longer accused the American couple of ‘exploiting’ the dead artist.” The nature of the debate is a mystery never dispelled. He is similarly tight-lipped about the next contender, James Laver, a penetrating historian of costume and fashion, who remarked that Whistler “was as much obsessed by elegance as a man-milliner”.

Sutherland’s occasional affectations of style bid to out-Whistler Whistler, especially the precious “Oh” at the beginning of a sentence. “Oh, and he decided to build a house.” “Oh, he was full of ideas.” For the most part, however, it is a surprisingly unshowy affair, given Whistler’s penchant for display. There is a certain repetitiveness to the tale, an endless cycle of fraternisation, litigation and excommunication.

Sutherland is prodigiously well informed. He knows the price of everything. Whistler’s world unspools before us. Yet Whistler’s world-view remains elusive. The interior is unplumbed. As an artist, he is overvalued, or at any rate too readily accepted at face value, often his own. “Perhaps the most influential artist of his generation”, runs the hopeful claim. Perhaps. His canvases were not merely canvases, Whistler was keen to say: they were picture patterns. His picture theory is a pretty thing but it had its limits. Far beyond lay an artist of his generation whose work he considered childish. Oh, his name was Paul Cézanne.

Alex Danchev’s books include “The Letters of Paul Cézanne” (Thames & Hudson, £29.95). He is a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war