Friday, May 6, 2016

19th Century Artist in London Residence James McNeil Whistler and visiting friends from across the water

by Michelle Shine

I’ve just spent some time looking through an extensive list of Victorian British painters and did not recognise many names. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is there, reviving medievalism with his pre-Raphaelite art, and JW Turner, the landscape artist whose paintings are characteristically emblazoned with light. Turner died in 1851 and it was often said that his work pre-empted impressionism. I probably missed one or two important names, (as I write this, Constable comes to mind) but nevertheless, there are not many British 19th Century artists, it seems, who are now household names.

By contrast, across the water in France at that time, there was a large group of burgeoning artists living and working in Paris. Unfortunately for them, their creative endeavours — which were cutting edge — were not appreciated by the art establishment, and were consequently ignored by the French art buying public. During their lifetime many were unknown. Some, like van Gogh, never sold a single painting and relied heavily on cash handouts from their families in order to survive. These artists who could live their whole lives in luxury on the proceeds of just one of their paintings now, are famous at last, and celebrated throughout the world: Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Vincent van Gogh, Auguste Renoir among them.

James Whistler/ Self Portrait
In 1855, an American born painter, James Whistler, made his way across the Atlantic to France where he studied art at atelier Gleyre, an occupation he had shown a flair and inclination for since childhood. Whilst there he frequented the cafes, and ensconced himself fully in bohemian life, making the acquaintanceship of Edouard Manet and Charles Beaudelaire, and no doubt compromising his health by smoking and drinking too much. He also spent a lot of time copying the old masters in the Louvre, and that’s where he first met his lifelong friend, Henri Fantin-Latour.

James Whistler had it in him to be dogmatic. ‘I’m not arguing with you, I’m telling you,’ he once said, demonstrating that he was not a man to accept contradiction lightly. So, when in 1858 one of his works was rejected by Le Salon des Beaux Arts, he upped and left Paris, and took up residence in London to try out his luck there. Not that he was able to leave Paris completely. He returned there many times. For in spite of its prejudice against young innovative artists, the city held a magnetic lure over him.

Whistler’s half-sister, Dasha Delano, who was married to the surgeon and etcher Sir Francis Seymour Haden, lived in Chelsea, and James followed suit. London was good to him, not only for embracing his art, but also his dandyish outgoing personality that soon made him something of a luminary. His quick wittedness was legendary:

When a female admirer came over to introduce herself and said, ‘I know of only two painters in the world; you and Velasquez.’

Whistler replied, ‘Why drag in Velasquez.’

And when a sitter complained that his portrait was not a great work of art. Whistler countered, ‘Perhaps not, but then again, you are hardly a great work of nature.’

On one occasion, he even outwitted his friend Oscar Wilde. In January 1886, The Boston Herald, reported this anecdote:

Whistler pricked this bubble of Wilde very neatly and epigrammatically at a Paris salon last season presided over by a well-known and popular lady. Whistler had been notably witty during the evening and finally made a bon mot more than usually pointed and happy that convulsed his listeners.

Wilde, who was present, approved Mr. Whistler’s brightness, and wondered why he had not thought of the witticism himself. ‘You will,’ promptly replied Whistler, ‘you will.’

This lightning comment on Mr. Wilde’s wonderful ability to think of other people’s bright things and to repeat them as his own had, you may imagine, an immediate and most discomforting effect on Mr. Wilde.

Symphony in White
James McNeil Whistler
In 1860, Whistler met Joanna Hiffernan. She became his live in lover, business manager and was the model in his painting Symphony in White: The White Girl, which in 1863 afforded him yet another refusal from the Académie des Beaux Arts.

The judges felt that the lily she held in her left hand symbolised her deflowering and the bearskin rug that she stood upon was a metaphor for masculine lust, making the picture somewhat obscene in their eyes. The painting almost caused as much of an uproar at the Salon des Refusés (the exhibition of rejected paintings sponsored by Napoleon III in 1863) as his friend, Edouard Manet’s, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.

Dejeuner sur l’Herbe
Edouard Manet

It is ironic that Victorian England, in spite of all its puritanical ways, embraced Whistler’s controversial work, if not wholly (Symphony in White was also rejected by the Royal Academy, although two other works of his submitted at the same time were accepted) then definitely in part; he was able to exhibit the Symphony in White in a small gallery in Berners Street. The French might have had a reputation for being liberal towards sexual prowess but the English proved to be far more open-minded and forward thinking in general, when it came to art, than their counterparts across La Manche.

So much so, that when Whistler’s friend Henri Fantin-Latour wrote to him complaining about the difficulties of making a living from painting in France, he soon received a letter from Francis Seymour Haden, Whistler’s brother-in-law, enclosing a five pound note in payment for a sketch and an invitation to come to London. Haden asked Fantin-Latour to bring small artworks with him and wrote, ‘Let us see if they can be sold in London. According to Whistler there are weekly sales where small leisure subjects can be sold easily.’ Fantin-Latour took up the offer. His work sold well and later was accepted for the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy.

A studio in the Batignolles
Henri Fantin-Latour

In 1870, both Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet left France for England in order to escape the Franco-Prussian war. Pissarro settled with family in Norwood and painted many London scenes during his stay. After the war finished in 1871 he returned to live in France, but paid four more visits to England during his lifetime. England treated him well too. It was during one of his stays there that he was introduced to the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who later organized exhibitions for his work back in France. 

Pissarro was a fan of Whistler’s work and is quoted as saying, ‘This American is a great artist and the only one of whom America can be justly proud.’ Although Pissarro wasn’t too taken with the man himself, he thought Whistler’s flamboyance and celebrity debased his art. 

‘Whistler is even a bit too pretentious for me … I wouldn’t want to be an aesthete, at least like those across the Channel. Aestheticism is a kind of romanticism more or less combined with trickery, it means breaking for oneself a crooked road. They would have liked to have made something like that out of impressionism.’ --Camille Pissarro

No doubt Whistler and Pissarro met at some point. They certainly had a lot of friends and acquaintances in common, but probably didn’t get on too well. Incidentally, they both died in 1903: Whistler from Lyme disease and Pissarro from blood poisoning.

Fox Hill, Upper Norwood
Camille Pissarro
Claude Monet and Whistler, on the other hand, were firm friends, although according to Katherine Lochnan of The Art Gallery of Ontario there is no documented evidence that they met before the 1880’s. They had a lot in common. Their work drew a parallel. Whistler painted the Thames and Monet, the Seine. Both painted their hometown rivers in a whimsical, impressionistic manner. They must have had a lot to speak about when they finally met up.

The Thames
James McNeil Whistler

The Seine
Claude Monet
This post was originally published on May 6, 2014.

Michelle Shine lives in London, England. For twenty years she ran a successful homeopathic practice. She is the author of What About the Potency? A homeopathic textbook now in its third edition and The Subtle Art of Healing, a novella which was longlisted for the Cinnamon Press Novella Award in 2007. Her short stories have appeared in Grey Sparrow, Liar’s League, Epiphany, and several collections. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck University. Her debut novel Mesmerised is out now in paperback in the UK from all good booksellers and on Kindle worldwide, published by Indigo Dreams.

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  1. This was a wonderful post. I learned so much from it. I love the Impressionists, and, equally, the paintings of Whistler. (I especially like The Woman in White.) Your book sounds very interesting.

    1. I've just seen your comment. Apologies for not replying sooner.Yes, the Impressionists are wonderful and it was such an evocative era, such a pleasure to research and write about. Thank you for your interest.

  2. This is such an interesting blog. The time to research, write and post the information a real labor of love. I'm delighted I found you during the #Challenge. Thank you.

  3. Enjoyed this. The Victorians had a very schizophrenic attitude to ART - they liked both the formal and the rather louche...ditto photography. That's why they are such fun!


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