NEW YORK — The Frick Collection celebrates the centenary of James McNeill Whistler's death with ruffles and flourishes.
Its exhibition, "Whistler, Women, and Fashion," through July 13, displays eight portraits of stylish women, 60 works on paper, and four mannequins in period costumes. It demonstrates what a contemporary reviewer noted: "[Whistler] understood the intimate union between a woman and her attire."
Not that his paintings meticulously itemized frills and furbelows. The American artist, who lived in London most of his career, depicts character more than costume.
By posing his models in modish attire - sometimes of his own design - Whistler created images of "modernity."
He simplified details of dress, fusing costume, pose, and setting into an overall harmonious pattern that captured what the poet Baudelaire called "the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable."
It's fitting that a museum should focus on Whistler's love for fashion. The artist was a notorious dandy, given to what he called "pompadouring it."
He wore a long frock coat, immaculate spats, canary-yellow gloves, and carried a four-foot-long bamboo wand. With his rakish mustache and a white lock arranged decorously in his curly black hair, Whistler was never one to be overlooked.
Whistler not only invented a colorful persona for himself, he invented his subjects' images for posterity.
Preferring dusky light as a milieu when he painted, he submerged his sitters in murky darkness on canvas so that, he wrote, "all petty and exacting details vanish, everything trivial disappears, and I see things as they are in great strong masses."
His painted ladies in the latest fashions are brimming with life. In one full-length portrait, Lady Archibald Campbell looks over her shoulder defiantly, as if to say, "You talkin' to me?" She was a progressive aristocrat, an actress, and a writer - one of Whistler's subjects whom he called "swaggerers" for their assertive style.
Two portraits of a controversial society figure, Lady Valerie Meux, a dance-hall vamp who married a wealthy baronet, illustrate Whistler's mastery. In one lush portrait, she appears radiant in diamonds, wearing a coquettish black ball gown framed by a white cloak. Her provocative stare conveys a take-no-prisoners, independent spirit.
In a more conventionally attired portrait, wearing an afternoon dress, Lady Meux - with her direct, unabashed gaze - looks equally like a force of nature. A cartoon of the painting spoofed Whistler's loose brush strokes with the caption: "To be completed in a few more sittings."
Actually, the perfectionist Whistler took years to complete a painting, often scraping the canvas to begin again when it was nearly complete. He wanted the final product to look easy, dynamic, and spontaneous, but he admitted, "work alone will efface the footsteps of work."
His ambition, Whistler wrote, was to bring out "the bright life that is now smoldering within." His approach, in which he blurred details to capture the swirl of life, was described by author Henry James as "to breathe upon the canvas."
The technique looks vaporous. But the portraits convey solid individuals, stepping out from their age to speak to ours.