Whistler Interactive

When James Abbott McNeill Whistler died in 1903, scarcely a dozen mourners attended the funeral. On the centennial of his death last year, one might be excused for thinking that even fewer were marking the anniversary. Overall, a surprising lack of fanfare to commemorate America's first internationally recognized artist, but for those who would like to know a little bit more about Whistler than his mother, there are options on the web - and Whistler Interactive offers a basic, but engaging introduction.

Part of the ever-growing catalog of exceptional sites from the Smithsonian Institution, Whistler Interactive opens its presentation in a manner reassuring to any struggling artist who has yet to receive recognition (deserved or otherwise). But be careful what you wish for, specifically, there is an animated collection of less that complimentary contemporary reviews of the famous painter's work - Such gems as, "Disastrous failures" and, "Little jokes." After presenting the critics' perceived shortcomings in his talents, Whistler moves to a simple index page with a portrait of the artist as a no longer young man, and links to the site's four sections.

As one might gather from the title of the first section, Mr. Whistler presents a personal introduction - with biographical notes, a few words about the connection between Whistler, Oriental art, and Charles Lang Freer (founder of the gallery where the works are housed), as well as a look at the painter's talent writing. This section is also where the visitor first encounters Whistler Interactive's unique user-interface. With the index on the left, and background information placed in a borderless and transparent scrolling text box on the right of the browser window, the center of the screen is occupied by whatever image is appropriate to the displayed content. Usually, there will be several images available for any given piece of text, accessible by clicking on numbers below the image frame. In some cases, the presence of a magnifying glass icon indicates that larger versions of the image are available to be viewed in popup windows. Placing your mouse pointer over an "i" symbol, reveals specific "curatorial" details about each artwork in a temporary transparent text box floating directly above the image.

Artwork divides the exhibition's roughly 50 works into such categories as Medium (oils, watercolors, etc), Subject (landscapes, portraits), and Place (Paris, London, Venice and Amsterdam). Each category comes with its own background information, and the interface replaces the selection of numbers below the image frame with a table of links to related works in each category, sub-divided into Whistler's early, mid, and later years.

Exhibitions at the Freer reviews past and present displays at the gallery, and <i>Resources</i> provides a selection of related Freer Gallery sites, PDF versions of Whistler Interactive's content, and such external links as the Centre for Whistler Studies at the University of Glasgow, and the Whistler House Museum of Art. Always accessible along the bottom of the browser window, a scrolling Timeline tracks the artist from his birth in 1834 to his death in 1903 - with each milestone opening a new image and text into a "pop-in" frame in the center of the browser window.

The only mildly disconcerting attribute of the site relates to the presentation's screen dimensions. Interactive's "canvas" is a bit smaller than a standard 800x600 screen, but the site doesn't automatically resize the browser frame to fit the content. (Nor the popup windows around the larger images.) The result is some unnecessary white space around the borders of the web pages. Hardly earth-shattering, and it will not hamper your viewing of the exhibition, but it was such a surprising quirk - especially given the thought that obviously went into the rest of the production- that I was trying multiple browsers and checking that my JavaScript was turned on, just to be sure it wasn't something at my end.

Whistler Interactive is only an introduction to the artist, so the content is accordingly rudimentary, and you won't encounter any screen-filling versions of the artworks, posted for detailed examination. But the style of the presentation is both attractive and logical, and it presents visitors with all the information they need to decide if they want to explore further (in which case, the Resources section is standing by).

Whistler Interactive can be found at http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/online/whistler/intro.htm.

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