HAVING TREKKED TO Washington to feast on James McNeill Whistler exhibitions, I was taken aback and insulted by “Art and Artifice” by Martha (who?) McWilliams (Gallery, 7/28). Then I realized it was “The Nasty Issue” and that the focus might have had something to do with her vicious review of an American artist who needs no defenders, and whose work can successfully sustain attacks by small-minded “art critics” even today.
Whistler holds a unique position in the history of painting: He was one of the very first to integrate “Japonisme” successfully into Western art; he was a forerunner of both symbolism and impressionism in art; and he was a supreme example of the “artist as a work of art,” which was later embodied in the figure of Oscar Wilde. McWilliams would do well to take a refresher course in 19th-century painting before expressing what are basically unfounded and erroneous opinions such as the statement that Whistler “abandoned Courbet for the tradition of Ingres,” or that “Whistler couldn’t draw, couldn’t paint, and didn’t understand the human figure of the rudiments of pictorial structure” (the real question here is whether McWilliams understands what she is looking at). I am saddened that an American artist of Whistler’s stature must be demeaned even as conscientious curators offer the willing public a thorough overview of his work. I congratulate them for their efforts and only wish for a Whistler painting titled Symphony in Bile (Portrait of a Critic.
City University of New York, New York, N.Y.