A Classic in the Art of Insult

We’ve all figuratively met “Whistler’s Mother” — from a painting titled Arrangment in Gray and Black #1.

But how many of us really know anything about her son, the artist, James Abbot McNeill Whistler? Until recently, I don’t think I’d ever seen Arrangement in Gray, a self-portrait he made in 1872 or thereabouts.

He loved neutral colors, and I am familiar with his Symphony in White #2

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl 1864 James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

I became curious about Whistler as I was reading about art for art’s sake… you remember, that very confusing art movement that eschewed usefulness and purpose in art? I was a bit surprised, I’ll admit, to learn that James Whistler was a leading proponent of that art movement. He actually went around giving lectures, granting interviews, and writing letters to newspapers in which he ridiculed popular opinions about art and praised the doctrine of l’art pour l’art.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was quite an interesting fellow, one with a rather volatile personality, it seems. He devised an interesting art signature — a stylized butterfly with a long “stinger” for a tail — formed from his initials. It’s been said that “...the symbol combined both aspects of his personality: his art is marked by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative.”

Combative, indeed! In 1877, Whistler sued art critic John Ruskin. I found this quite interesting because I do know a bit about Ruskin. I have two volumes of his lengthy treatise on “Modern Painters”.  He was a man who certainly spoke his mind. It’s not surprising to me that he and Whistler came to legal blows.

Ruskin had written a scathing criticism of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. 

Because of the notoriety of the trial, this has been referred to as Whistler’s most infamous painting. It was exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery. Ruskin’s comments were:

For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay (founder of the Grosvenor Gallery) ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have 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 did win his suit against Ruskin, but was awarded only a “token” settlement of one farthing. Court costs were split between the opposing parties. Whistler’s share was paid through a subscription organized by the Fine Art Society, but within the year he was bankrupt and had to sell his studio.

In 1890, excerpts from the trial and other comments from Whistler were gathered into a book titled “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”. It has been referred to as “a classic of insult and denigration.” It’s definitely a fun read!

Here is one remark by Whistler:

People have acquired the habit of looking, as who should say, not at a picture, but through it, at some human fact, that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better their mental or moral state… Alas! Ladies and gentlemen, Art has been maligned. She has naught in common with such practices… purposing in no way to better others… having no desire to teach. Nature contains the elements in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music! To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano.

And speaking of music… it seems Whistler had a certain fondness there, giving his artistic composition such musical titles as arrangements, studies, and nocturnes. 

Another interesting tidbit about Whistler that I didn’t know was that he studied at the military academy at West Point. He did not fare well there, however, and after three years he was “dismissed” — a rather polite way of saying he was expelled — after failing his chemistry exams.

The more I read about Whistler, the more I find references to his “difficult” personality. According to Parkstone International’s art blog, the boy was “a horrible child… prone to temper tantrums and laziness.” I laughed when I read that although he was born in Massachusetts — Lowell, to be exact — he later claimed that he’d been born in Russia, asserting that “I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell.”

What an eccentric man he must have been! One of his studio apprentices painted a portrait of Whistler which I find especially interesting. Take a look and then read this lovely description from The National Endowment for the Humanities:

On Monday, November 25, 1878, James McNeill Whistler donned his usual costume. It is easy to picture him shrugging into his black woolen frock coat, admiring the snug fit through the shoulders and waist before the material flared and fell, slightly A-line, around his narrow hips. In the mirror, he examines his loose, dark curls, which add several inches of height to his fine, but rather slight, figure, making very certain his one white forelock isn’t obscured. He checks for his monocle and reaches for the thin walking stick he carries with him, ready to gesture at some witty or barbed point he might make. His signature look assembled, Whistler heads off to the Exchequer Chamber in London’s High Court of Justice to testify in his libel suit against the eminent critic John Ruskin.


Read their article here: How James McNeill Whistler Became a Brand and Fought For It in Court

I could go on and on, sharing links, pointing out books written about McNeill and the famous libel suit, but most likely you’re already well aware of this artist and his story. It was all new to me, and I’ve spent several days now reading about Whistler and wondering why I’d never learned any of this before.

I’ve always enjoyed Whistler’s works, and now I think I’ll enjoy them even more. James Abbott McNeill Whistler — the man with four names — definitely established himself as a most unforgettable artist.



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