For reasons that are beyond me, the image most popularly associated with Whistler is not, as it is with most artists, one of his artistic pinnacles; but, at least in my opinion, one of his least successful and least interesting works, Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother, known commonly at “Whistler’s Mother”.
How this particular painting became an icon of American art is a mystery I find too uninteresting to pursue. Whistler’s overall body of work, however, his muted tonalist masterpieces, evocative portraits and stunningly beautiful etchings, make him one of the most under-appreciated “famous” artists that I can bring to mind.
While many of his Victorian contemporaries spoke boldly in voices of Academic clarity or Pre-Raphaelite finesse, and the more adventurous shouted with Impressionistic abandon, Whistler… whispered.
Influenced both by the free brushwork of Impressionism and the solid foundation of Academic training (like many of the so-called “American Impressionists”), Whistler, even more than the others, took great inspiration from the spare, open and visually poetic compositions of Japanese prints, which were a popular import into England and Europe at the time.
Though he is considered an American painter, Whistler, like Sargent, spent the better part of his life in Europe (England, actually) and was European in his sensibilities.
The son of an engineer, Whistler went to the West Point Military Academy, where he did poorly but came away with enough acumen from drawing class to be employed mapping the entire U.S. coast for the Military, a job he hated almost as much as school, though the etching skills he acquired would serve him well later.
Whistler despised the way Americans held art and artists in low esteem in comparison to Europeans (a situation that continues to this day, as far as I can tell); and on leaving to seek artistic training in Europe, never returned to the U.S. He subsequently spent much effort, in the course of his continual re-invention of his persona, denying his birthplace in Lowell, Massachusetts — alternately claiming to be a disenfranchised Southern aristocrat or born in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Whistler’s antics, his often arrogant and abrasive personality, dandified appearance and relentless self-promotion can be as misleading as his iconic portrait of his mother in discerning the real painter. For that, seek out his other portraits, like Purple and Rose: The Large Leizen of the Six Marks (one of my favorites in the Philadelphia Museum of Art) or Symphony in White, No 2: The Little White Girl (image above, top); or his beautiful, poetic “nocturnes”, soft harmonies of mist and atmosphere, like Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea (above, bottom).
In these works, and his masterful etchings (Whistler is my second favorite etcher next to Rembrandt), you can see Whistler as the major figure in art that his rather drab portrait of his mother and overly colorful personal behavior might otherwise obscure.
Fortunately, there are many resources on Whistler, numerous books, including a very nice and inexpensive Dover book of his etchings, and lots of web resources, some of which I’ve gathered for you below.
If you live in or near New York, now is a good time to re-discover Whistler, as the Frick Collection is presenting a beautiful little show culled from their own impressive holdings: Portraits, Pastels, Prints: Whistler in The Frick Collection from now until August 23, 2009.
If you’re not familiar with the “real” Whistler, don’t let him hide behind his mother’s skirts, seek out his quiet brilliance in the paintings and etchings where he composes his visual “symphonies”.