What matters most in a painting

In 1849, when he was 16, James Abbott McNeill Whistler wrote to his family of his ambition to become a painter. His father, a prosperous railroad construction engineer, was adamant against the idea. Only in 1855 was Whistler finally able to persuade his widowed mother to provide him with a small yearly allowance to complete his art training in Paris. Although he was never a very diligent student, Whistler did not overestimate his prospects as an artist. By the 1890s, he was the most lionized and controversial painter in London.

Whistler's quixotic temperament accounted for much of the controversy that blew up around him. However, his views on art could also inflame the public, though his work was always in demand. He shared with his French Impressionist contemporaries the conviction that the aesthetic integrity of a painting matters more than subject or sentiment. He often gave his paintings titles that assert this conviction. The portrait illustrated here, for example, is identified only parenthetically as ''Mrs. Walter Sickert.'' To the artist it was ''Green and Violet,'' the colors he used to set the picture's somber, formal tone.

Knowing that Whistler cared more about the aesthetics of a picture than about its psychological interest, we should be leery of taking the portrait's dour coloration as a reflection of the sitter's mood or character. Walter Sickert was for years an ardent and admiring disciple of Whistler, so the elder artist may well have known that his friend's marriage was strained almost from the start. The size and technique of the portrait, however, seem to affirm that Whistler's interest in his subject was more formal than personal.

Mrs. Sickert sits on a couch at a distance almost too great to allow us a view of her facial expression. The small size of the canvas - it is little more than a foot high - seems to make her even more remote. Rather than compensate for the size of her figure by clarifying its representational finish, Whistler has blurred the image by dappling Mrs. Sickert's face and dress with many very thin glazes. The result of this technique is a ''puddling'' effect more natural to watercolor than to oil painting. (Whistler was a masterly watercolorist.) He even allowed the thinned paint to run in drips down the length of the figure, disturbing the consistency of the picture's spatial illusion.

By emphasizing the formal qualities of his painting, Whistler displaced into the viewer's experience the psychological tension we might expect to see as inherent in an astute portrait. We experience this tension when we notice that our curiosity about who the sitter appears to be is answered only by details that tell us how the portrait has been painted.

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