James McNeill Whistler Painted More Than a Portrait of Mom

Washington exhibitions aim to enlighten viewers about the wide range of his art

SUDDENLY, Washington is teeming with James McNeill Whistler's art.

Perhaps no other artist's mother is so well known: "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother," casually known as "Whistler's Mother," is one of the most recognized paintings by an American artist. But other works by Whistler have eluded prominent public display for nearly a century, since memorial exhibits following the artist's death in 1903.

Three Whistler exhibits recently opened here in Washington: "James McNeill Whistler" at the National Gallery of Art; "Whistler & Japan" at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery; and "In Pursuit of the Butterfly: Portraits of James McNeill Whistler" at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. A fourth, "Prints by James McNeill Whistler and His Contemporaries," also at the National Gallery of Art, will open June 18.

Taking a fresh look

"It has been a time to reassess and take another look at Whistler," says Charles Brock, exhibition assistant at the National Gallery of Art. "He's known by 'Whistler's Mother' - it's an American icon - yet people don't know the substance and range of the rest of his art," he says.

Until fairly recently, "his personality has overshadowed his achievement as an artist," Mr. Brock explains. During the last 30 years, more scholarly attention has been paid to Whistler's work. Washington is a perfect setting for a celebration of Whistler, Brock says, as some of the best research about Whistler and important works reside here.

"James McNeill Whistler," the largest of the current exhibits, is a major retrospective presenting 200 works including "Whistler's Mother," which has not been seen in the United States for more than a decade. Until recently, a show of this size was not possible because of legal restrictions keeping many of Whistler's important paintings from being lent. Though several Whistler collections were not available for the exhibition, the National Gallery of Art was able to seek out enough other representative work for a comprehensive exhibition.

Whistler was born in Lowell, Mass., in 1934. The beginning of the artist's expatriate life began almost immediately, when at age 9, Whistler's family traveled to St. Petersburg where his father worked as an engineer for the czar. At 15, Whistler returned to America and attended the US Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. There, Whistler practiced his art, studying prints by the Renaissance masters and learning etching techniques. Two years later, after being discharged from West Point, Whistler began studying art in France.

As Whistler traveled between Paris and London, he became friends with the French Realist painter Gustave Courbet, whose work began to influence Whistler's. But Whistler's artistic path diverged after Whistler's brother-in-law encouraged him to work from nature. He soon settled in London, where "the climate for the acceptance of new art was more favourable there than in Paris," writes Richard Dorment, one of the show's curators. Patrons were also more numerous, though Whistler still spent time painting in Paris.

A pivotal painting

In Paris, Whistler painted one of the pivotal paintings of his career, "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl," displayed prominently at the National Gallery. The painting "serves to symbolize Whistler's identity as a Franco-British painter," Mr. Dorment explains. It also had the "distinction of being utterly misunderstood on both sides of the Channel," he writes.

Critics guessed at the meaning of this portrait of Whistler's mistress, Johanna Heffernan: Was it a portrait of a bride? a fallen woman? an apparition? But curators Margaret MacDonald and Dorment explain, "The picture makes no concessions to a nineteenth-century audience's expectation of narrative." Unlike other artists of his time, "Whistler's realism becomes clear. Whistler's painting has no subject - or rather, its subject is so blatant that the critics were unable to see it: a model posing in an artist's studio."

The stir over "The White Girl" exemplifies two important themes in Whistler's life and work: his distinctive style as a Realist and his adversarial relationships with his critics. The latter resulted partly from his eccentric personality.

While a "full-scale neo-classical revival was under way" in the mid-1860s in England - "Avant-garde English painters ... were painting rhythmic friezes of toga-draped ladies," Dorment writes. Meanwhile, Whistler was painting landscapes of England and France. His seascapes, with broad strokes of pastel, were simple and devoid of unnecessary detail.

In the early 1870s, Whistler pushed artistic limits even further when he painted the "Nocturne" series of the river at night. "Nocturne: Grey and Silver," a painting of the Battersea shore, is one of the most simplified of Whistler's series. Greens, blues, browns, and blacks hint of the water, the shore, and a clock tower. Dots of gold reflected in the water indicate lights.

Not everyone readily received his style - nor did Whistler take his critics' harsh words silently. "To Victorian eyes, his compositions looked empty, his brushstrokes slapdash...." Dorment explains.

Of "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket," critic John Ruskin wrote, "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."

Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, and the trial became a forum for defending each artist's views on art. For Whistler, "style and subject were identical," Dorment says. At the trial, Whistler referred to his works as "arrangements" or "symphonies." The arrangement - not the subject of his paintings - was most important. Whistler said about the portrait of his mother, "To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?" Whistler won the trial but was left bankrupt.

Influence of Japanese art

During the 1860s and '70s, as Japanese prints and other goods became popular in the West, Whistler became heavily influenced by Japanese art. From it, Whistler developed his distinctive "butterfly" signature. Mimicking Japanese style, he painted European scenes and models (he never traveled to Asia) with a simpler palette and fewer brush strokes.

At the Freer Gallery - American collector Charles Freer was an admirer of Whistler and of cross-cultural art - 31 of Whistler's works are displayed, intermingled with Japanese prints, paintings, lacquers, and ceramics, emphasizing the art Whistler drew upon.

In 1876, Whistler was consulted about a color scheme to complement his painting "La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine," which hung in the dining room of patron Frederick Leyland.

While Leyland was away, and without his permission, Whistler painted the entire room (including the ceiling) in a peacock scheme of blue and green, patterned with gold feather designs.

The painter attempted to charge Leyland twice the original commission, and even when Leyland refused, Whistler carried on painting the "Peacock Room." At one end of the room, Whistler painted two gold peacocks battling over silver coins. The dispute over payment became public, and Whistler was banished from the home.

Some time after Leyland's death, the room was purchased by Freer, dismantled, and reerected in his Washington gallery.

Toward the end of Whistler's life, he became very popular - or at least it became fashionable to admire him - and portrait commissions were plentiful. But Whistler was "in private less confident than his public image suggested," Dorment writes.

"Indeed, it is the self-doubt, so apparent in his late self-portraits, that makes him one of the most complex figures in nineteenth-century painting." Whistler destroyed much of his own work, dissatisfied as he strove to push beyond his own limits.

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