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January 16, 2007

Nasty Artist

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

As an ex-skiier on a skiing vacation, I have plenty of time on my hands. One use I'm making of that time is catching up on my reading.

I just finished this biography of painter James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).

The book had been laying around half-read for a number of months, and it was my first crack at learning about Whistler's life. My sluggish process of acquisition and reading likely stems from an ambivalent take on his art: I don't really dislike it, but I'm not really enthusiastic about it either. But I'll save that matter for another time.

What the book repeatedly had to deal with was Whistler's tendency to turn on friends and associates, surprisingly often in the form of litigation. By his lights he was often simply defending the rights of an artist as he saw them.

Among those he turned on were: Sir Francis Haden, husband of Whistler's half-sister; one-time studio assistants Walter Greaves and Walter Sickert; author and playwright Oscar Wilde; and Thomas Way, his long-time lithographer. And he sued art theorist John Ruskin, who was not in his circle.

Some of Whistler's spitefulness would simply take the form of a cry of "betrayal!" regarding some greater or lesser slight, followed by ostracizing the wretch who crossed him. At the other extreme were the lawsuits. In the middle range were public squabbles in the form of letters to newspapers, journals and other publications.

Over the course of his 69 years and one week of life, only a few failed to enter Whistler's sh*t list. Those included French writer Stéphane Mallarmée, painter Claude Monet, collector Charles Lang Freer and various members of his wife's family (sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip became his heir and executrix).

No doubt a few instances of Whistler's public touchiness might have been related to self-publicity in the new age of mass-media. But his flare-ups were so continual it's hard not to believe that his personality was fundamentally testy.

The book didn't mention other important artists who were as nasty as Whistler, and I haven't attempted to do the research. Perhaps Friedrich and art history buff readers can offer pre-20th century candidates.

I do know that other important English-based artists of his era were comparatively mild-mannered, examples being John Singer Sargent, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadama, Sir John Millais, Lord Leighton and Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

If the book is any guide, Whistler's temperament did him more harm than good. But there are lots of books about him, and some of them might lead the reader to the opposite conclusion.



posted by Donald at January 16, 2007


What the book repeatedly had to deal with was Whistler's tendency to turn on friends and associates...

I am still laughing at myself.

When I distractedly read this sentence while multitasking on my computer, my first thoughts were: "Hmmm, I didn't know Whistler was a substance abuser? Was he smokin' in the boys room?"

Sorry, Michael. It is an interesting post and I stand red-faced, but giggling in the corner ;-)

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on January 17, 2007 4:33 PM

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