Symphonies, nocturnes, harmonies, and arrangements -- James McNeill Whistler audaciously employed all of these terms to describe his subtly orchestrated explorations into the essence of line, form, and tone through painting.
In what is the most exhaustive and comprehensive catalog of these paintings to date, the late Andrew McLaren Young and his students and colleagues Margaret MacDonald, Robin Spencer, and Hamish Miles have produced this meticulously documented historical inquiry into the nature of Whistler's work.
The research for the two-volume compilation spanned more than 20 years. PRevious attempts at such an undertaking met with defeat, perhaps because Whistler seemed as good at conjuring up smoke and mirrors to disguise the particulars of his work as he was at bestowing it with crepuscular magic.
The Pennells, Whistler's most cited and reliable biographers, attempted but failed to catalog the paintings. Although subsequent catalogs of the artist's etchings and lithographs have proved successful, it was left to Young, then a Richmond professor of fine art in the University of Glasgow, to pin down the elusive master's paintings in time and space.
The resulting book includes paintings Whistler was known to have destroyed or never to have finished, as well as those that have since been lost. The compilers caution in their introduction that a number of the paintings included are assumed to be the work of Whistler (some obviously questionable canvases are those that may have been reworked by his pupil Walter Greaves; others more problematical might be the brushwork of Whistler's wife, Beatrix).
The catalog remains as faithful to chronological order as known fact and educated speculation will allow. Explanation is given for the ambiguous dates, and a lucid format helps the reader through a tangled maze of titles (more than one of which is often used for the same work).
The history of each painting has been thoroughly researched. "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl," an unorthodox composition at the time of its execution, rejected by both the Royal Academy in London and the Salon in Paris, is a case in point. The catalog chronicles its tumultuous history from its debut in Paris in 1861 to its present home in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Young devotes five pages of text to the effect on Whistler's career of this important work, quoting the artist, the model, and fellow painter Fantin-Latour's account of the responses of Courbet, Legros, Manet, Bracquemond, and de Balleryoy to the work. The particular technical aspects of the painting -- its reworkings and alterations -- are closely recorded -- even a note about the size of brush used and the weave of the canvas.
Diligent documentation of locations and dates as well as incidental anecdotes also accompany the painting, which precipitated the notorious Ruskin trial -- "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket," which occurred when Whistler sued for libel after Ruskin, the redoubtable critic, indignantly accused him of being an impudent cockney for demanding "two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."
Of the 559 paintings cataloged, 346 are extant. The plates total 438; this count includes photographs, etchings, and lithographs pertinent to the history of the paintings. The color reproductions have been carefully executed to reveal the texture of the impasto and the very weave of the canvas.
"The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler" is a great contribution toward an understanding of a revolutionary artist and the historical context in which he lived and worked.