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Expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was not an easy man to get along with-flamboyant, and litigious, he made enemies with ease. Whistler’s intimate life was equally stormy and he lived with a succession of mistresses, many of them his models, before settling down in 1888 at the age of 55 to a blissful but tragically short eight-year marriage with Beatrix Godwin, a tall dark woman who was 23 years his junior. This spring and for much of the summer (Feb. 21–Aug. 15) the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, repository of the most important collection of Whistler’s work in the world, will exhibit 26 lithographs Whistler made while living in Paris during this happy interlude.
Whistler had first spent time in Paris in 1855. After failing a course in chemistry at the Military Academy at West Point and then working briefly as an engraver for the drawing division of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, D.C., he was eager to study art and made many contacts with leading French progressive artists before settling in London in 1859. Whistler continued to travel and exhibit his work in Paris in subsequent years. The French government gave him the official recognition that the English had denied him, making him a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1889 and purchasing his now famous portrait of his mother in 1891. Frustrated by the English, in 1892 he moved to Paris. He and Beatrix settled into a home 100 rue du Bac, where he basked in the esteem of a wide circle of sympathetic painters, writers and musicians.
The then 36-year old Beatrix Whistler was not only Whistler’s gifted student. She was also the daughter of well-known sculptor John Birnie Philip—who had sculpted the podium frieze on the Albert Memorial in London—and the widow of Whistler’s friend, the architect E.W. Godwin, with whom she had worked on furniture, wallpaper, tile and stained glass window designs, among other things. The Whistlers’ years in Paris, which were punctuated by visits from Beatrix’s mother and sisters, his brother and friends, were the happiest of Whistler’s life. Beatrix maintained their beautiful home and garden near the Seine, the Louvre, and Whistler’s studio at 86 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. There they entertained friends such as Claude Monet, the art critic Theordore Duret, and the symbolist poets Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac and Stephane Mallarmé, who in 1891 had translated into French Whistler’s famous “Ten O’Clock Lecture” proclaiming his views on art.
Whistler had first experimented with lithography in 1878 and 1879, when he produced 18 prints, but the majority of Whistler’s lithographs were produced during his years with Beatrix. A popular medium in France during the last decade of the 19th century, when Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864—1901) and others produced bold lithographic poster designs to advertise cabaret entertainments, lithographs are generally made by drawing greasy crayons or washes onto a prepared limestone, which is then etched with an acidic solution. Crayoned drawings can also be made directly on paper and then tranferred by rubbing onto the stone which is then etched and inked for printing. This was Whistler’s preferred method in Paris. As the image is double-reversed, Whistler’s lithographs depict the original orientation of the scene, whereas his etchings do not. The Paris lithographs function as a kind of family album-documenting theWhistlers’ friends and family and the daily pleasures of their contented life together. Works on view include images of Beatrix at the piano, in her garden and at rest, as well as one of Mallarmé, two of Whistler’s physician brother and two-one by Whistler and one by his wife-of the poet Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, whom Whistler had previously depicted in a life-sized oil painting.
The Freer and Sackler galleries together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Ave. S.W.) also houses a major collection of late 19th-and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 357-2700 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at asia.si.edu.