PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Brendan King Cover design: Marie Lane Cover illustration: Félicien Rops
The author of keen-eyed and sagacious 'critical essays on the avant-garde', Théodore Duret,13 who was one of the first to defend Manet, the Impressionists, and all the other escapees from that lucrative artistic prison the Salon, tells us that James MacNeil Whistler was born in Baltimore, to a major in the US Army, that he followed, like Edgar Allan Poe,a course of study at the West Point Military Academy, and that,
also like the poet, he hastened to escape a future of barracks and guard duty.
Coming to Paris in 1857, he attends Gleyre's studio. and sends paintings to the official Salons of 1859 and 1860, which the jury reject; in 1863, he figures on the list of the Salon des Refusés, with his portrait of a woman dressed in white, standing out against a white background. Here is the description of this work, which I copied from a now rare brochure by Fernand Desnoyers: The most singular and original painting is that by M. Whistler. The title of his picture is The White Girl. This is a portrait by a spiritualist, a medium. The figure, the posture, the face and the colour are strange. It's both simple and fantastical at the same time; the face has a tormented and charming expression that fixes the attention. There is something both vague and profound in the eyes of this young girl, who's beauty is so unusual that the public doesn't know whether to find her ugly or pretty. This portrait is alive, it's a remarkable painting, superb, one of the most original to have passed before the eyes of the jury.
In 1865, the border guards of the Institut de France let his Princess from the Land of Porcelain through the doors of the Salon: A princess from One Thousand and One Nights, as luminous as those forms that the imagination thinks it sees in clouds, stands, her hair tousled, letting her robes trail over a sky-blue patterned rug. I hope that fashion adopts her style; perhaps it will this winter at some court ball, where the princess from the land of porcelain would be a hit: a pearl-grey dress with a floral pattern, a saffron-coloured manteau decorated with tropical flowers, poppy-red sash, and a bird-of-paradise feather fan in her right hand. For backdrop, a pale screen and, above it, whitish panelling. As a colourist fantasy, this princess is provoking. In 1867, Whistler exhibits one painting, At the Piano, and, having already settled in England a few years previously, is little talked about in France and no longer exhibits there. In 1878, however, the rumour of a lawsuit he brings against John Ruskin crosses the Channel. In the review Fors Clavigera, Ruskin, the defender of the Pre-Raphaelites, declared à propos of certain of Whistler’s paintings - his Harmonies and his Nocturnes among others - that he had '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 is indignant and, like any good American would, takes out an action against the critic, for the commercial depreciation of his wares, before the Court of the Exchequer, which orders Ruskin to pay a farthing in damages. Then Whistler decides to exhibit again in France. He sends a black, phantasmic, particularly bizarre portrait to the Salon of 1882. But in fact it isn't until the following year that we are permitted to admire the extraordinary personality of this painter. At the official Salon of 1883, he shows the portrait of his mother, an old lady in profile, her black clothes standing out against a grey wall extended by a black curtain dotted with white. It’s disturbing, of a colour different to that which we're accustomed to see. The canvas is, for all that, barely covered in paint, its threads showing through. The harmony between the grey and the Indian ink black was a joy to the eye, taken by surprise at these subtle and profound counterpoints; it's a realistic painting, wholly intimate, but already opening out into the transcendental realm of dreams. At almost the same time, at the international exhibition in the Rue de Sèze, he exhibits his famous canvases of London, his dream landscapes: his delightful Nocturne in Silver and Blue, in which a city built on a riverbank rises up into the azure; his Nocturne in Black and Gold, in which fireworks shatter the shadows of a dark night with blood-red rockets and a sprinking of stars; and finally, his Nocturne in Blue and Gold, depicting a view of the Thames over which, in a spectral mist, a golden moon illuminates with its pale rays the indistinct forms of ships sleeping at anchor. Inevitably, one thinks of De Quincey's visions, of those rushing rivers, of those turbulent dreams provoked by opium. In their frames of pale gold, flecked with turquoise blue and spotted with silver, these scenes of air and water stretch out to infinity, suggesting the undulations of the mind, transported by magical means to an indeterminate time, to oblivion. They are far removed from modern life, far from everything, at the very boundaries of a form of painting that seems to evaporate into an invisible haze of colour on these delicate canvases.
In 1884, the artist returns with two portraits, those of Miss Alexander and Thomas Carlyle. The historian - who was honest enough to admit that deep down there was no true history and who somewhere wrote this forceful sentence: 'Altars should be raised today to silence and solitude' - sits in profile, in a black rumpled frock-coat, his hat placed on his knees. This sad, somewhat gruff figure with his greying beard, breathes and meditates, slowly summing things up; it's a portrait that penetrates beneath the skin, that places on the subject's face a reflection of the thoughts within; it’s a portrait of a candid soul, but surprising as it might be, that of Miss Alexander seems to me more admirable still. Imagine a little girl, with ash-blonde hair, dressed in white, holding in her hand a grey felt hat plumed with a feather, and standing out against an amber-grey panel supported by the pure black of a skirting board; a little blonde, aristocratic and anaemic, nonchalant and calm, an English Infanta moving in a haze of grey, a grey gilded underneath with the faded gold of old vermeil. Again, in its broad finish, barely painted at all, and like a Velasquez, brushed with such a beautiful mix of tones in its range of silver greys, that it lives with an intense life.
As in Whistler's other works, there is in this canvas a supraterrestrial aspect that is disconcerting. Certainly, her image is lifelike, is real, that is sure; certainly there is, in addition to her physical flesh, a little of her character in this painting, but there is also a supernatural aspect emanating from this mysterious, somewhat spectral painter, which to a certain extent justifies Desnoyers' use of the word 'spirititualist'. Indeed, one can't read the more or less truthful revelations by Dr Crookes on the subject of'Katie', that shade incarnated in the doppleganger form of a palpable yet paranormal woman, without thinking of Whistler's portraits of women, those ghost-portraits that seem to retreat, that seem to want to sink into the wall, with their enigmatic eyes and their ghoulish, icy-red mouths.These reflections are especially applicable to that portrait of Sarasate, which he loaned in 1886, a mediumistic portrait, elusive and highly-strung, and even to that splendid portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell which was the glory of the official Salon of 1885. Depicted from the side, almost from the back, showing a figure turning round, she retreats into a dark shadow, deep and warm at the same time, and two spots shoot out, two spots of amadou brown - that of her small boots and that of the long gloves she's buttoning - two spots stirring in the night, the darkness of which lifts at the bottom of the canvas; but this is just incidental, a detail amid the ensemble planned by the painter. From her otter-fur cape, from her dark dress, Lady Campbell emerges with supreme elegance, her tightly-laced body palpitating, her mysterious face tilting, with a provocative and haughty eye that invites, and a dull-red mouth that spurns. Once again, the artist has drawn from the flesh an indefinable expression of the soul, and he has also transformed his model into a disturbing Sphinx.
I will now leave aside the portrait of Duret, who is represented in a black suit, holding a pink cloak and a red fan over his arm. It's a curious work, assured, but with less of a transcendental elan, and the colours are sad - one would almost say it was like a smooth and expressionless Manet - and I arrive at that series of paintings, landscapes for the most part, that Whistler exhibited in May 1887 in Georges
Petit's gallery, and in May 1888 in the rooms of Durand-Ruel; a whole series of 'harmonies' and 'arrangements': a village with the title Green and Opal; a view of Dieppe, Violet and Grey; a scene in Holland, Grey and Gold; a pastel, Blue and Pearl; then duos of Violet and Rose, of Mauve and Silver, of Purple and Gold; and finally a solo, sung by a sweet shop, under this title, An Orange Note.
Of unequal value, these paintings, some of which seemed to be only sketched fragments, bear out the revelation of those landscapes exhibited in 1883 in the Rue de Sèze. They were veiled horizons, glimpses into another world, sunsets drenched in warm rain, river mists, clouds of blue fog, a whole spectacle of indeterminate nature, floating cities, languishing estuaries, blurred in the confused daylight of a dream; they were, outside of contemporary art, a painting of convalescence, exquisite, wholly personal, wholly new, a 'fluidic painting' that this visionary has tried to render even in his precious etchings, where, with a few strokes, he disperses buildings and cities, makes space limitless, projects a unique sensation of distance. A clairvoyant artist, drawing out the suprasensible from the real, Whistler's landscapes make me think of several poems of a murmuring and caressing softness, as confessed, as whispered, by Verlaine. At certain moments he, like Whistler, evokes subtle insinuations, and at others, sways as if in an incantation from which an occult spell emerges. Verlaine has evidently gone to the limits of poetry, to where it evaporates completely and where the art of the musician begins. Whistler, in his harmonies of tones, goes almost beyond the limits of painting; he enters the country of letters, and advances along the melancholy shores on which Verlaine's pale flowers grow.
Whistler, in his 'Ten o’clock' lecture translated by Stéphane Mallarmé, defines art as he conceives it in this way: 'She is,' he says, 'a goddess of dainty thought, reticent of habit.'And this will be his glory, as it will also be of those few artists who have despised the taste of the public, who have aristocratically practised this art contrary to ordinary ideas, this art that retreats from the crowd, this resolutely solitary, haughtily secret art.
No. of pages: 256
Publication date: 07.05.2021
978 1 912868 61 2
Dedalus World English in this translation