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The Whistler Stamp

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

The year 1934 marks the centenary of the birth of the American painter, James MacNeill Whistler, Coincidently—I do not know whether by chance or deliberate design, but in any case at the instigation of the War Mothers of America—there has been an issue of a three-cent postage stamp bearing a reproduction of Whistler’s Mother, with the inscription, “In honor of All Mothers of America,” ostensibly to celebrate Mother’s Day. That hoary old fellow, Time, winking his shrewd, ancient eye at the antics of mice and men, could not have staged a more subtle irony. Whistler had been so emphatic in stressing his intention, vehemently insisting that his mother was a mother only to him and to no one else, and that to the public at large the picture represented “An Arrangement in Grey and Black,” nothing more or less than that, just that, And now—well, we are told that, “to add to the beauty and attractiveness” of the stamp, the printed words, “Three Cents,” were deliberately placed near the bottom of the stamp, instead of the usual numeral. The crowning touch was the intrusion of a vase of flowers at the lower left-hand corner, a gratuitous device not in the original painting. Really, what have the florists done to deserve this free advertisement? The designers of the stamp might have gone the whole hog and added the words, “Say it with flowers!” I am sure Whistler would have appreciated that. What’s his ghost going to do about it? Will he, deftly manipulating his draperies, appear to haunt the maternal dears as a frightening arrangement in white or will he perhaps indulge in a sepulchral chuckle, with that something familiar about it, reminiscent of the Wasp as well as of the Butterfly?

But the irony stage-managed by Time does not by any means begin here.

At the Tate Gallery, London, the most cosmopolitan of painters bears the label of “British School.” The efforts of various critics to trace specific American qualities in Whistler’s paintings have been almost as entertaining. The late George Moore presumed to find them most noticeable in the portrait of Carlyle, because, in his opinion, Whistler’s attitude while painting the Sage of Chelsea was that “I am quite as big a man as you.” Mr. Frank Rutter, in a brief but judicious estimate, thinks he has found in the painter’s reticence the Americanism of the Southern seigneur as distinguished from the stentorian self-assertion of the Northerner as found in the work of John Sargent. The same English critic makes a shrewder guess when he associates the quiet, the spirituality, and the all-pervading pathos of Whistler’s art with the Celtic temperament; for there was Irish blood in Whistler on his father’s side. A still more plausible, though by no means conclusive, hypothesis is that offered by the German critic, Herr Julius Meier-Graefe, who interprets the cosmopolitanism of the painter as a product of a “race without traditions,” and his “exoticisms, his tendency to mingle Oriental and European forms” as something “essentially American.” Herr Meier-Graefe, furthermore, makes a valiant effort to disentangle Whistler himself from “the Englishman,” “the Frenchman,” “the Japanese,” and “the Spaniard,” who are all present within him.

We need not go too deeply into the merits of the German critic’s argument as to the whys and wherefores of Whistler’s cosmopolitanism. On similar grounds, we might conclude from Burbank’s successful experiments in fruit and flower culture that America has no fruits or flowers of her own, and from his efforts to improve on Nature by combining and blending the palatable qualities and visual appearances of Nature’s diverse product that he is, solely on this account, a typical American. Yet, putting nationality to one side, the fact itself as regards Whistler is indisputable. Never before in the history of art has an artist achieved so precious, so perfect, so splendidly homogeneous a compound out of such alien elements. It is the mystic in Whistler that has effected so profound a reconciliation between the arts of the East and West. Because mystic abstraction is a cohesive force you see no incongruous consequences in the result: all border lines have been effaced, a sense of interfusion as imperceptible as the merging of day with night pervades; matter is dissolved into idea, to use Mr. Laurence Binyon’s description of the art of Zen; the means themselves employed by the artist are lost sight of. Conflict and confusion may reign in the world of matter, as indeed they do; the kingdom of the spirit is one. A priest, an artist, a metaphysician, Whistler, like the good men of Zen, like Twachtman, has conquered matter and the means of his art, has made them one.

Twachtman, purely a landscape painter, has spiritualized the concrete formula of Impressionism—the Impressionism of Monet. You are singularly unaware, as you are in Monet, of the science, of the means which went to the making of a Twachtman landscape, though of course it is there, if “dissolved into idea,” and touched with that contemplative spirit which we associate with the landscape art of China. In Whistler the associations are more definite, more various too: there is the contemplative spirit—Chinese perhaps; the sense of arrangement, which is certainly Japanese; the feeling for tone and values, which can be ascribed to Velasquez. Nor must we overlook other influences in his work. That he “never let go again what he had learnt from Gleyre, Lecocq de Boisbaudran, Courbet and Fantin” is a judgment which Mr. Walter Sickert, Wilis-tler’s most distinguished pupil, is not alone in holding. This is not saying that Whistler is not original. On the contrary, the extraordinary fact is that in spite of these obvious assimilations, he is astoundingly original. His genius has abstracted the exquisite elements of others and, possessing this virtue in good measure himself, he has translated the whole into a strange and rare flower, in its way as perfect, as refined, as exquisite as any flower of art yet existing, and withal distinct.

The exquisite, indeed, is the soul of his art: the unobtrusively, the reticently, exquisite: become through the profundity of its charm a deep-felt emotion, a visual music, a patterned harmony as true in its systematic, studied relation of tones as a piece by Chopin, and of the same feminine winsomeness. “Nature,” said the artist in his “Ten O’Clock,” “contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful— as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony. To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano.”

Had Whistler never said a word to explain himself all this would have been perfectly clear to us. When, however, he attempts to draw the conclusion that “the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound and colour” and that “the great musicians . . . Beethoven and the rest, wrote music—simply music; symphony in this key, concerto or sonata in that,” he is suffering from a confusion of ideas; moreover, his conclusion runs counter to the facts of his own art, while his rash assertion with regard to another art can easily be refuted. Mr. D. S. MacColl, in his essay on Whistler, puts the case very clearly:

So far is this from being true that Beethoven in his symphonies seems to have had a very definite “subject matter” of idea and emotion. In the last of all he was humming out a melody for a particular set of words: he lets us hear the search with its approaches and revulsions and finally joins the melody to the words. The melody and harmony alone are abstractly beautiful; as the vehicle of an idea and emotion they are something more—expressive; the beauty has become the “poetry” of sound. For Beethoven it was a part of his art to take in this connection between melody, harmony and “matter” so that beauty and interest should enhance one another.

The truth is, that Whistler, in his revolt against the maudlin subject picture—the British abomination not yet wholly extinct—in his intense desire to stress the importance of craftsmanship, the fact that no picture is a picture without it, went to the other extreme, rejected everything but craftsmanship, and railed against the critics and the multitude. Practically, the principle he formulated in his literary indiscretions—but luckily not in his paintings—was that a picture could only be appreciated by a painter, a musical composition by a musician, a flower—by God or a gardener.

In short, he demanded that the craftsmanship alone be admired and not the emotion which gave birth to the work of art, an emotion which the artist had felt in the beginning and then conveyed to others by means of craftsmanship. After this, his statement that “a picture is finished when all trace of the means used to bring about the end has disappeared” sounds like a contradiction, which gains in emphasis when Whistler himself falls into “literary” criticism of his nocturnes in that famous passage in “Ten O’Clock,” which to Whistler’s generation bore the sound of truth and is regarded by ours as a piece of pretty if empty rhetoric: “And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili . . .” For, after all, painters of this hard-boiled generation love the tall chimneys as they are, and for themselves, in the broad daylight, and do not ask for the cloak of night to soften contours for the sake of an illusion which has lost all meaning. Whistler’s poetical words are scarcely art criticism within his own definition of the word, and how like they are to the evocation in verse dedicated to the painter by W. E, Henley:

What of the incantation

That forced the huddled shapes on yonder shores—

To take and wear the night

Like a material majesty? . . .

(River, O River of Journeys, River of Dreams!)

Whistler, it will be seen, was a victim of that spirit of discrepancy between a theory of art and its execution. For if we are seriously to accept his statement that “Art should be independent of all claptrap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like,” then we must pronounce Rembrandt a dealer in claptrap, because, in the words of Mr. MacColl, “having taken in hand a scene in which devotion, pity and other emotions are implicated, he has been so artless as to use all his resources of drawing and tone to reinforce them.” The reference is to the print of the “Crucifixion,” whose black and white have a limited meaning as a pattern, which is indeed there merely to make significant the theme of the picture. The pattern becomes profoundly and sublimely beautiful in so far as the blacks and whites are made to stand for the lights and shades of things and persons, and the shadows are seen palpably animated with a spirit both human and divine and fraught with a sense of tragedy. Can one for a single instant doubt that it is Rembrandt’s intention and power “to exalt emotion by visible terms”?

To return to Whistler’s portrait of his mother. The artist’s effort to force the public to accept it as an “arrangement in grey and black” was unsuccessful, because the public, to quote Mr. MacColl once more, “will see . . . a great deal more than grey and black, which might have been obtained, uncontaminated by any but the faintest human feeling, from the coal scuttle. It sees reverend age, told in lines of character and reinforced by gravity of disposition, scruple and tenderness of tone. The miraculous greys become the servants of the person in the image.” If we are to accept Whistler’s theory in a literal sense, the portrait of a beautiful woman and the painting of a carrot, provided one and the other are done in “arrangement,” should awaken not dissimilar emotions in the person who looks at them.

This brings us to the supreme irony of this whole business of art. And there is in it a specific reference to Whistler. For Whistler’s battle for appreciation of the art of painting on abstract grounds has been won by the moderns—not without cost. The creator of “symphonies” and “arrangements” insisted that any emotion that went into the making of the painting of his mother was none of the public’s business; the moderns, on the other hand, make a great ado about their private emotions, which, they say, find expression in pure patterns; and if one of them painted his mother and made her look like a carrot he would more than ever prate about the inward eye, the essences of emotion, which crystallized the human image in the abstract shape of a carrot or some other vegetable, and, if not a vegetable, then a buzz-saw in combination with some cogs, or some other equally relevant piece of mechanism having no outward relation to the theme of the painting. In short, it is Whistler’s own idea run to the ground. The ultra-modern artist looks upon his work and finds it good—and who will deny that some of it is good, even superb? The public itself is divided; there are the “rare few” who are genuinely enthusiastic; there are others who are fashionable in their admirations and think they ought to like it or are hypnotised into liking it; there are those people, the large majority, who may not know what art is but know what they like, and they don’t happen to like it, What of the sitter (if the picture happen to be a portrait) ? We have never had the opportunity to hear an expression of his or her opinion; but we can surmise that anyone sitting for a portrait would at least want his or her image recognized by a friend. Paintings may be abstractions, but a human being is not.

I may have seemed to digress, but all this is relevant to an evaluation of Whistler in our own time, when new gods cast shadows upon the old ones. And, somehow, the painter’s “Sarasate” portrait, now in the collection of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, comes to mind. Whistler has painted greater pictures than this, but never has he given us a more characteristic interpretation of his genius. There is the recognition and the tenderness in it which one artist in tone feels for another. By the graceful poise of the violinist, by the affectionate and expectant manner in which he holds his beloved Stradivarius, by the rendering of the instrument itself as a thing reticently exquisite, the whole portrait becomes an insinuation of soothing tone. On looking at this portrait you seem to read Sarasate’s thought, and Whistler’s thought of Sarasate, who has become a symbol of tone. And this thought of Whistler’s is like a confidence whispered in our ear. All of Whistler’s art shows this tendency not to speak aloud, conscious—as it were—that it is addressing itself not to deaf men, but to men whose perceptions are sufficiently delicate and alert to snatch at the slightest hint and make the most of it, even as a faint gesture or the lighting up of an eye tells you what is in your friend’s mind.

When we come to examine Whistler’s literary efforts and controversies we find this reticence singularly lacking. It was the Butterfly who painted the picture, the Wasp who wrote the acrid correspondence. The “Ten O’Clock” itself, which sets forth the artist’s aesthetic creed, is, despite fine passages, a much overrated document, full of ill-founded assertions. It does not advance its author’s notion that the painter should be “the critic and sole authority” of his own art. It was, of course, a fine courageous thing to “put down” the mighty Ruskin and to disprove that art dictator’s assertion that he, Whistler, was “flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public.” It added nothing to his own repute to prove that it was a pot of ink he was capable of flinging. It was Degas who in his frank way told Whistler publicly that one would hardly suspect from his manner that he was a great artist. Curiously, it was from critics and poets that Whistler received his most eloquent tributes. It was Swinburne who sang before the “Girl in White” (Symphony in White, No. II):

White rose in red rose garden, Is not so white . . .

It was George Moore who rhapsodized before the portrait of “Miss Alexander,” a picture which seemed to him truly the most beautiful in the world. And on the Continent Baudelaire was one of the first to recognize Whistler’s genius.

I dare say that in any final evaluation of Whistler’s genius, judging by its measure of influence, we shall stumble upon the singularly ironic fact that it has left a greater impress on life than on art, on the multitude he despised than on the artist. The effect he produced on his own pupils was unwholesome, in that they tended to become little Whistlers. It could not have been otherwise: Whistler not only invented his own peculiar formula, but he said the last word in it. His Nemesis is Walter Greaves, whose work hangs in the Tate Gallery; and Greaves, though he has far from bettered his master’s instruction, will worry the world a century or two hence, as Mazo, Velasquez’s son-in-law, is worrying it now.

Let us speak of the good Whistler did. He and Manet were the two most representative artists of the period. They both, to borrow again the pithy illuminating phraseology of Mr. MacColl, “protest against the painter who exhausts his whole scale of light and dark whatever his subject may be. But Manet, by his choice of subject, protests against the false darks, Whistler against the false lights.” Whistler’s blacks are never opaque, never colourless. Again, Whistler taught us that a picture was not a sermon or a story but a decoration. This was a relevant lesson in a day when Royal Academy catalogues were filled with quotations expressing sentiments like the one under the Millais picture at the Tate: “The Northwest Passage. It can be done and England shall do it.” He may be held responsible for a diminution in the output of maudlin art. He also revolutionized art exhibitions by having his pictures hung properly in suitable frames, at an adequate distance from one another. And he has given an impetus to etching and lithography.

This seems a great deal. Much of it partakes of the nature of a corrective. The direct influence of his art is relatively small. That is the penalty one must pay for the limitations of an art which is perfect and exquisite. A Whistler canvas beside one by Rembrandt, taking each at his best, is like a beautiful, motionless lake in restful surroundings in contrast to a broad, turbulent river rushing between wild, variegated banks. Philosophically, one may describe Whistler’s serene art as in a state of being, Rembrandt’s tumultuous art as in a process of becoming. It is, to make a comparison in another art, Turgenev and Dostoevski all over again. Ironically, again, it was a Japanese critic, M. Oka-kura-Kakazo, who said of some of Whistler’s portraits that “decoration has driven out life,” an extreme view, perhaps, but with a measure of truth.

Whistler has not been without influence on life; he created a standard of taste among the people little short of revolutionary. He has invaded their homes. To him are due the simplified interiors, a welcome reaction to the blatant mid-Victorian ornateness: plain distempered or “self-coloured” walls, against which a drawing or an etching may show to advantage within the narrow “Whistler frame”; drawing-rooms which are restful and not over-crowded, etc. Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, champions of Whistler, were inclined to grow wroth at the mention of the rival decorator, William Morris, and vehemently asserted that Morris, who said he was appealing to the people, never appealed to them, while Whistler, who maintained that art had nothing to do with the people, made it possible for them to follow him: “While Morris, busy preaching art to the people, would run up a bill for five thousand dollars in decorating a room . . . Whistler, insisting upon the aristocracy of art . . . at the cost of about five dollars would arrange a room vastly more beautiful in its simplicity and appropriateness . .

Whistler’s greatest influence, however, was in educating the people, the people he despaired of—”the working man and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure” —to the beauties of night. The dweller on the Thames, or on the Delaware, and I dare say on the Saskatchewan and on the Clyde, now knows a nocturne when he sees one; and it is seldom that one sees a nocturne that one does not think of Whistler, just as a sunset as often as not reminds one of Turner. No one, by the way, as far as I know, has ever told us why Whistler despised Turner. Was it a psychological antagonism: because one worshipped the god Sun, the other the goddess Night? Or was it because of Ruskin’s fervid espousal of the British painter to the disparagement of other men? There was never a better opportunity to compare the genius of the two painters than at the Tate Gallery just he-fore the War, when the Whistler exhibition adjoined the Turner room. For sheer elemental power, which we might call the sense of Cosmos, Turner’s art seemed to tower above Whistler’s more perfect, more precious evocations. A great artist, it has been said, is known by his limitations. Turner is one of those exceptions great because of their excesses; excesses, by the way, which are just now pouring over into newer moulds of modern art, which has acclaimed him an influence and a power. In his effort to express the unutterable, Turner resembles the mad genius Frenhofer in Balzac’s “Hidden Masterpiece.” Against Turner’s Cosmos, Whistler gives us what we’used to call in the old days Soul. No one has portrayed with such rich yet delicate sentiment the souls of human beings. Camille Mauclair has affirmed that this quality of soul, this insistence on revealing a human being in his psychologic rather than physical aspect, has made Whistler one of the great masters of portraiture. “Velasquez and Van Dyck,” says Mauclair, “had a suggestion of it; Whistler realized it.”

What painter has given such a gallery of children, who appeal by reason of a skill, attended by a reticent fancy and serene handling, which draws forth the very essences of childhood, that childhood which is wistful and timid and sensitive, truly like the trembling of a leaf? Thoughts of tenderness are awakened in us by such exquisite portraits as “Pouting Tom,” the “Green Cap,” the “Little Rose of Lyme Regis” and the “Little Lady Sophie of Soho,” children of the poor, with strange grave faces, aristocratic in mood. And then the beautiful women, tall, queenly in bearing, enigmas of alluring reticence, altogether feminine and imperious—half looking over their shoulder, as in the “Fur Jacket,” “Lady Archibald Campbell” (known sometimes as “The Yellow Buskin”), “Rosa Corder”: yet hardly the women themselves, but the souls of women, whom we pass by as in a succession of dreams, dreams which partake of the nature of supra-reality. Undoubtedly Whistler had a tremendous reverence for women; he worshipped goddesses rather than gods. And he revealed his homage for women even in his writings, which were otherwise rarely consistent with his art. “Ten O’Clock” is full of it. The first artist was the man who “stayed by the tents with the women,” while others went to do battle, or to the chase, or “to dig and delve in the field.” Art is a woman who always sought out as her lover the artist, the Master. Art to him is “attractiveness—all freshness and sparlde— all woman’s winsomeness,” also “a goddess of dainty thought”; and he exclaims: “Know then, all beautiful women, that we are with you . . .”

To return to that postage stamp. Little wonder, is it not, that women have thus chosen to commemorate the artist through the Mother who gave him birth? Irony though it may be, the event is not without poetic justice. Interpret it as you will.


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