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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.

Master of the gentle art: Whistler was known for his charm and talent, but also his feuds. (Photo: Corbis)
Master of the gentle art: Whistler was known for his charm and talent, but also his feuds. (Photo: Corbis)

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