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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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution