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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times