“In Pursuit of the Butterfly: Portraits of James McNeill Whistler”

“James McNeill Whistler”

“Prints by James McNeill Whistler and His Contemporaries”

“Whistler & Japan”

January 1

For some mysterious reason, three major Washington art institutions are presenting exhibitions this summer devoted to American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler. It’s a mystery partly because there are a number of 19th-century American artists whose work merits such a sustained and varied investigation, but Whistler is not one of them. It’s also odd that the centerpiece of this quartet of exhibitions is at the National Gallery, which used to maintain that only paintings worthy of hanging with the Alba Madonna could be displayed on its walls. Whistler, an indefatigable self-promoter, claimed to be a great artist, but the verdict of art history has never agreed with him.

There is nothing in these exhibitions to make art history change its mind. The modern habit of approving any art that was ridiculed or rejected in its own day has led to a lamentable absence of judgment about the merits of some 19th- and early-20th-century art. Yet Whistler is an exception to the specious rule that great artists are unappreciated by their contemporaries. When 19th-century critics said the realists and the impressionists couldn’t paint, they were wrong; when they said it of Whistler, they were right.

Confirmation is just down the hall on the walls of the National Gallery, where works by Whistler’s French friend and mentor Gustave Courbet and his colleagues Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas can be studied and compared with the American’s works. The gallery owns poor examples of Courbet’s work, but even so, it is shocking to suggest there is anything but a superficial resemblance between his paintings and Whistler’s. What Whistler took from Courbet was the realist notion of painting scenes from everyday life without sentimentality or idealization. But Whistler adopted realism as a strategy rather than a way of seeing the world, and although his best works were done under Courbet’s influence, when he decided a different strategy would be a better career move, he abandoned Courbet for the tradition of Ingres.

In a way, Whistler is an almost pathetic figure. Degas’ famous remark, “You behave as though you have no talent” (referring to the shamelessly extravagant behavior that made the American a celebrity but not a respected artist), points to the problem. Whistler couldn’t draw, couldn’t paint, and didn’t understand the human figure or the rudiments of pictorial structure. What he did have was great enthusiasm for the artist’s life and an ability to animate the romantic pose of perpetual rebellion. He does seem to have had a keen eye for fashion and to have been a talented decorator, evidence for which is amply provided by the Peacock Room on permanent display at the Freer Gallery—part of that museum’s tribute, “Whistler and Japan.” Whistler seems like the sort of personality—with his enthusiasm for controlling the conditions under which his art was displayed, including designing gallery interiors and the colors of the guards’ costumes—who could have made a successful career in the movies. As it was, his passion for designing spectacles rarely had an adequate outlet.

As a consequence, he made his life the spectacle. The most interesting of the four Whistler commemoratives examines this aspect of his artistry. “In Pursuit of the Butterfly: Portraits of James McNeill Whistler” traces the evolution of the Whistler image industry. It demonstrates how the artist managed that image, always contriving to appear eccentric and, by implication, “interesting”: from his debut in Paris, when he wore a straw hat with long ribbons, to his mature years in London, where his monocle, cape, shock of white hair, and ubiquitous butterfly monogram were easily recognized in caricatures and magazine illustrations.

Whistler was the most-portrayed artist of the 19th century, and “In Pursuit of the Butterfly” presents an impressive range of portraits and self-portraits. The earliest images include a photo of the artist at about age 10 and a watercolor by C.A.F. Fiessler showing him as a child with a palette and paintbrush at work on a woman’s portrait. Late likenesses include photos taken near the end of his life and a garishly colored 1910 label from a Whistler cigar box containing a bust-length portrait and a laurel garland strung with six reproductions of his work. In between are photographs—both portrait photos and informal ones showing the artist in his studio—as well as drawings, paintings, magazine illustrations, cartoons and caricatures, and images in books, pastels, lithographs, and etchings.

The artist posed for many of the photographs with a bravado and confrontational exuberance that helps explain some of the intensity of opinion that surrounded his career. But what emerges from “In Pursuit of the Butterfly,” along with his flair for self-promotion, is a sense of the man’s good humor, enthusiasm for life, and dedication to art, friends, and family. Even though he quarreled vigorously with many of them, the composite portrait created by the show reflects the man that another American painter, William Merritt Chase, called the “earnest, tireless somber worker,” as well as the better-known public Whistler, whom he termed “a fop, a cynic, a flippant, vain and careless idler.”

“In Pursuit of the Butterfly” was curated for the National Portrait Gallery by Eric Denker, a National Gallery staff lecturer who also organized the NGA’s “Prints by James McNeill Whistler and His Contemporaries.” Both shows are satisfying for enlarging on a particular aspect of Whistler’s life and work and setting it into a meaningful context. The portrait survey in particular enriches understanding not only of Whistler and his circle, but of the public image of the artist in general—to which the Whistler industry made a significant contribution. Similarly, the show investigates celebrity in the late 19th century, and the origins of the modern phenomenon of “the personality.”

The print show contextualizes Whistler in other ways. During his lifetime, Whistler was consistently praised for his etchings and lithographs. The NGA exhibit presents his works in those media, along with the creations of contemporaries who represent both the old styles Whistler and the impressionists supplanted, and the new approaches of such artists as Manet, Degas, and Cassatt. The images reflect a number of late-19th-century phenomena, including the revival of etching led by Whistler (his work was favorably compared with Rembrandt’s). There are also examples of impressionist work, urban views (which became increasingly popular during the rebuilding of Paris), fantastic visions, and a section showing the influence of Whistler’s Venetian scenes on other, mostly later, artists.

A contextual approach is also provided in the Freer Gallery’s “Whistler & Japan” exhibition, which presents paintings and prints by the American artist next to Japanese works similar to those that influenced and inspired him. Again, the comparisons demonstrate the limitations of Whistler’s skill and vision. What he took from the Japanese works was a refined sense of color harmony and a few clichéd compositional tricks for subverting the conventions of Western linear perspective. He failed to grasp the interior logic and structure that hold color patterns together in Japanese paintings, or anything about the complex relationships between images and the world they depict.

On the other hand, because it was the area of his own greatest strengths, Whistler may have sensed the original connections to fashion and design that lay behind the Ukiyo-e paintings and prints he admired. Their complete absence of anything other than aesthetic concerns mirrored his own, and in devising his approach to the “floating world” of Europe’s demimonde, he may have intuitively realized the appropriateness of the Japanese works as models. His late paintings, especially the society portraits, create a vision of insubstantiality and transitoriness not unlike the spiritual concept that gave rise to the Japanese notion of the pleasure quarters as a floating world. But Whistler’s position remained ambivalent: He saw through the artificiality of his aristocratic subjects, yet desperately wanted to be accepted and approved by them. This, as much as his lack of talent, may have limited his achievement to the creation of works that today look much better in reproduction.