The Artist as Muse
Curator of Special Projects in Modern Art
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Why do we do the research that we do? What leads us in a specific direction, and what magical circumstances keep us engaged over decades? This paper considers the richly inclusive and diverse nature of a curatorial life that is essentially devoted to the oeuvre of a single artist. Comments are rooted in the multifaceted relationship between the exhibitions and writings of Margaret F. MacDonald, who is being honored at this symposium, and the paintings, drawings, prints, and letters of James McNeill Whistler that she has studied for almost half a century.
Expansive in scope at times and tightly focused at others, MacDonald’s work on Whistler has taken her throughout the world, to collections both major and minor, public and private, thus enabling her to immerse herself (and, on occasion, members of her incredibly supportive family as well) both in Whistler’s art and in the lives of those who have been its caretakers, sometimes over generations. She has delved into the concerns of Whistler’s contemporaries, not only in the visual arts but also in politics, science, literature, philosophy, and music. She has tracked Whistler’s transatlantic and broadly based European cultural life, likewise exploring his childhood experiences in Russia. She has worried over his reception and reputation both in his own time and in ours. And she has worked to untangle myth from fact, imagination from experience, and desire from reality, all of which Whistler could mercilessly intertwine.
This is essentially what all serious scholars do in one way or another. What are the rewards of such a life, and what are some of the ways they are manifested? And how has the work that dominated one person’s life, that of Margaret F. MacDonald, inspired subsequent generations of scholars and artists? The hope is to raise questions rather than present answers.
Subject and Object in Whistler: The Context of Physiological Aesthetics
Head of Research and Professor of Nineteenth-Century British Art
The Courtauld Institute of Art, London
This paper addresses questions of subjectivity and experience in Whistler’s Nocturnes. It draws on discussions of physiological aesthetics in the mid-Victorian period, such as Grant Allen’s Physiological Aesthetics of 1877 and George Henry Lewes’ Problems of Life and Mind, published in a series of volumes in the 1870s. It looks at discussions concerning the subject’s knowledge of the objective world through sensation. Such scientific and philosophical investigations considered the sensory apparatus of the subject to be crucial as the point of interface between subject and object. In the final volume of Problems of Life and Mind, published in 1879, Lewes discussed this in relation to the paradox that, while there is a belief in an external reality, all the individual knows is that sensations are registered. We touch, hear, and see. The processing of sensation is discussed in the circles engaged in these discussions as constitutive of consciousness. This paper asks whether the paintings’ surfaces in Whistler’s Nocturnes should be understood to represent, analogously, the interface between subjective and objective spheres. In following this argument, claims are made for the paint surface to be seen as constitutive of subjectivity as well as instrumental in registering the environment.
Interior Motives: Whistler’s Studio and Symbolist Mythmaking
Associate Professor of Art History
College of Wooster, Wooster
The modernist theme of the artist’s studio often serves as a metaphor for selfhood. This paper examines that theme at two different points in Whistler’s career. I begin by looking at constructions of an artistic self in Symbolist-era essays and monographs on Whistler, which produced a literary persona I connect to developments in his later portraiture. My focus is on descriptions, especially those prevalent in fin-de-siècle French criticism, of Whistler’s studio as a secluded site where the artist effectively retreats from the public into a world of his own creation. I compare this mythology to a strikingly similar commentary about Degas that was advanced by a number of these same critics, including J.-K. Huysmans and Camille Mauclair. An imagery of introversion may seem at odds with the more familiar one of Whistler’s aggressive, often antagonistic posturing and courting of public opinion. I suggest, however, that this Symbolist perception of willful seclusion was carefully promoted by the artist himself, and in large measure it was encouraged by the type of full-length portrait he was painting around the very time such critical appreciations began to appear.
This kind of representation would appear to be markedly unlike earlier, more “aestheticist” accounts of Whistler’s studio and the art produced in and about it. For example, The Artist in His Studio (circa 1866) is an image of creativity defined by a visual lightness and brightness that suggest an environment dramatically different from what Huysmans and company describe. Whistler fills his picture with signs of a cosmopolitan outreach at odds with the later Symbolist emphasis on dark isolation. Yet, I suggest, the claims being made about the physical and metaphoric studio at such distinct moments in Whistler’s life are perhaps not as different as they might appear to be. By juxtaposing how the studio theme was shaped at these stages, my ultimate aim is to shed some light on the presentational tactics that preoccupied Whistler throughout his career and to suggest some of the areas where the visual imagery and critical rhetoric of Symbolism and Aestheticism might be seen as promoting similar interests.
Aesthetes on Display: Not Masculine and Progressive but Reclusive and Retrospective
Professor and Chair of Art History
University of Washington, Seattle
The protest expressed in the title was registered by a critic in 1888 concerning how the art of James McNeill Whistler and others had become controversial and feminized. Overall, connotations of sickness, indolence, and lassitude were among associations linked with the pictorial cult of Aestheticism in the 1870s and 1880s. These constructs encompass myriad issues of contemporary femininity and masculinity—from paintings and persons on display at the Grosvenor Gallery to fashion, interior decoration, posture, and changing notions of beauty and gendered identity. Invoking these concepts, Victorian critics assailed the radical imagery and aims of Whistler and others who produced representations of recumbent females and languid males.
Aesthetic women channeling Rossettian traditions represented one ideal, their demeanor and attire emblematic of active participation in this avant-garde movement. States of reverie, passivity, and swooning conveyed a sensuousness that paired limp receptivity with inner sexual agitation. While the passive Aesthetic female body outwardly appeared listless, it hid inner sexual potency. Numerous canvases, including Whistler’s Symphony in White, numbers 2 and 3, are compared with works by several painters and examples from popular culture. Punch cartoons underscore the battle between the “proper” Victorians of both genders and their Aesthetic counterparts.
Male aesthetes also suffered from alleged unhealthiness and affectation. Vanity Fair in 1880 bemoaned this malaise as being among “the most notable products of the Grosvenor Gallery . . . dirty men in long hair and wild women tied up in brick-dust cornsacks and sage green bedgowns.” In 1881 the Magazine of Art even claimed that Aestheticism promoted “effeminacy, [which] even when it is associated with some aesthetic sentiment, is not a wholesome moral temper.”
The visual impact of Aestheticism on males in art is a neglected area of inquiry. Besides effeminacy, androgyny also resulted from the cumulative decorativeness, posing, and lethargy, an effect one critic called “the complete antithesis to the honourable, self-respecting masculine character.” My research examines how certain attributes, such as flaccid posture, “soft” sensitivities to art, pretentiousness, anemic pallor, and unruly hairstyle, were on display for viewers. Furthermore, examples from popular culture and the decorative arts underscore the gender-blending results of the aesthetic experience.
Most Punch cartoons on Aestheticism focus on specific strategic sites, typically the home or the museum/gallery space, radicalizing these in new ways. The domestic sphere was no longer the exclusive female domain, for both men and women coveted the same objects and the idea of decorating to express personal fulfillment. Activities and identities once ascribed to women were now shared and reinvested with new meaning by male aesthetes. Aesthetic persons, like the artistic spaces they cultivated, were thus decorative in and of themselves and served as agents of change as they redefined Victorian notions about gendered identity.
Whistler, Aestheticism, and the Networked World
Melody Barnett Deusner
Terra Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in American Art
Northwestern University, Evanston
James McNeill Whistler’s “palaces of art”—both real and represented—are environments in which each figure and object, each shape and color, has been carefully chosen and placed to create a fully coordinated harmonious whole. And while these totalizing “nocturnes,” “symphonies,” and “arrangements” have been understood historically as erecting an aestheticized screen between the viewer/collector/patron and the messy, chaotic conditions of a rapidly industrializing modern world, they in fact share with that world a fascination with the creation and management of complex systems. This paper recovers some of the provocative points of connection between Whistler’s aesthetic project—described by the artist as a mandate “to pick, and choose, and group with science” the components of his compositions and interiors—and the day-to-day demands placed upon so many of his collectors and patrons, system builders such as Frederick Leyland (shipping, electricity, telephony) and Charles Lang Freer (railroad car manufacturing, banking). Through these and other transatlantic examples, this presentation outlines a new approach to studying Whistler and his acolytes by placing them within the context of what historians of technology and business have begun to refer to as the “networked” nineteenth century—a period marked and transformed by the creation and extension of large-scale transportation and communication systems as well as by the equally complex corporate entities and interlocking social circles that supported them. The imbrication of Whistler’s artwork within these networks was both concrete and cognitive: his paintings and prints did not merely serve as tokens of friendship among business partners, but even more importantly they evoked a completely coordinated aesthetic universe surrounding and issuing forth from the system builders themselves.
This paper underscores the system-oriented concerns and practices of the Aesthetic movement through a detailed reconsideration of Whistler’s Peacock Room and its painted centerpiece, La princesse du pays de la porcelaine. It draws upon a wide range of late nineteenth-century visual materials, from maps and charts to illustrations and advertisements, to sketch the essential characteristics of this networked moment and the experiences of selecting, sorting, comparing, rearranging, and combining that it engendered. Finally, it situates the display and circulation of Whistler’s art within select groups of British and American patrons and collectors, including those involved with the Grosvenor Gallery and its power-generating plant in London, as well as those coordinating extensive manufacturing and mercantile ventures in the United States.
“Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room”: Whistler, the Peacock Room, and the Artist as Magus
Lecturer in Design History, Department of Arts
University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne
This paper is a reassessment of the much-discussed topic of Whistler’s aestheticist interior Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. Drawing upon Whistler’s correspondence, papers, lectures and writings—including his 1885 Ten O’Clock Lecture and his subsequent dialogue with Oscar Wilde about the nature and function of art, which was published in the Pall Mall Gazette—the paper offers a new interpretation of Whistler’s use of symbolism in the room and the ways in which the Peacock Room communicates his vision of the role of art and the artist in culture. It argues that Whistler took the ideas and symbolism of the Green Dining Room by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company in the nearby South Kensington Museum (now the V&A)—a room imagined as a public expression of a collective Aesthetic endeavor that would create a new form of interior space as communal art, a shared “Arcadian” idyll, and “Green World” in the heart of urban London—and radically reconfigured them into an interior that expressed his own, somewhat Paterian, conception of the aestheticist interior as an articulation of individual sensory and spiritual experience. From this perspective the Peacock Room can be seen as an exploration of the perpetually fluid and complex relationship between the interior self and the physical and sensual world.
The paper contends Whistler deliberately envisioned and created the Peacock Room as a site of multifarious myths in which he not only referred to the Japanese art and design that has been so often cited as influencing his work, but he also deliberately alluded to narratives of metamorphosis in the work of Ovid and to the highly symbolic images and descriptions of transformative process that occur in both historical and more contemporary alchemical literature and illustration. Indeed, Whistler used the process of decorating, displaying, and promoting the room and, subsequently, the legends and stories that surround it, to explore playfully and seriously the myth of the artist as magician, alchemist, and/or creator, and to articulate the tensions inherent in artistic practice between the desire for creative autonomy and the need to earn money.
This paper offers a reconsideration of the Peacock Room as more than just a beautiful and controversial work of art but as an intentionally provocative and fascinating contribution to contemporaneous debates among thinkers, critics, artists, and writers, such as Morris, Wilde, Ruskin, Carlyle, and Pater, about the meanings, practice, and experience of Aestheticism, the relationship between fine and decorative art, and the nature of artistic creation itself.
Displaying Aestheticism’s Kitsch: Rossetti’s Virtual Parodies of Victorian Goods
Professor of Art History
Arizona State University, Tempe
Much has been written on the relationship between Aestheticism and commodification—the conflicts within Aestheticism between, on one hand, rejecting popular commodity culture and, on the other hand, intervening to reshape and direct consumers’ tastes. In my paper I argue that this contention can be reexamined through material culture studies that permit analyses of popular culture and high art based on shared attention to material goods. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, attempted to redefine commodities’ economic and aesthetic value not by competing with the burgeoning Victorian material culture (a strategy used by some aesthetes or painters on the perimeters of Aestheticism: Whistler, Leighton, Holman Hunt) but by undermining the display systems of shops, ads, and museums (in his museum poems and his paintings) through mimicry and parody. I reexamine several paintings, newly interpreting them through material culture studies, to show that Rossetti not only crossed boundaries but also blurred distinctions between high and popular cultures by deploying strange, often secondhand, distinctly unfashionable objects, dress, and jewelry, and by intentionally rejecting dress protocol. His figures wear bricolaged outfits and incorrectly draped oriental dress and jewelry, and they inhabit strange settings, familiarly domestic but also uncanny. In these ways, Rossetti deployed the aesthetic of strangeness advocated by Walter Pater to destabilize his spectators’ notions about the worth and beauty of material goods.
Rossetti exploited the possibilities inherent in the display of virtual goods. In doing this, he attempted to assert the authority of the artist in a world overtaken by material goods, virtual images, and material objects in new display modes across the visual field that erased distinctions between commercial (shops, ads) and cultural (museums) institutions. Rossetti’s strategy was to recall these other display venues and the practices of bourgeois excess in dress and furnishings in order to reconstitute them in painting as a critique of these systems and practices. In this way Rossetti inflected Aestheticism itself by bringing painting into a critical relationship with popular commodities.
Certainly Rossetti’s friendship with Whistler affected the objects he depicted, most of which were objects they both collected (e.g., blue-and-white china, kimonos), and the ways in which Rossetti represented settings, figures, and objects (e.g., the mise-en-scène of his paintings and physical attributes of his female figures). However, Rossetti’s aesthetic route was distinct from that of Whistler: Rossetti’s goods and female figures were strategically distant from high-end goods or conventional female beauty. Instead, Rossetti combined his collected, secondhand goods with bourgeois excess. His combination of Aestheticism’s astringent taste with his own kitschy goods asserted the artist’s aesthetic authority in a world in which this authority was no longer a wellspring for, or guide to, public taste. In this perhaps quixotic assertion of authority, Rossetti offered nuanced ways to understand artists’ emerging modernist relationships with commercial and cultural venues (anticipating cubism and other modernist movements) with which high art increasingly competed in the wake of the 1851 Great Exhibition.
Aestheticism Meets Arts and Crafts: Decorative Art on Display
Assistant Curator, Department of Exhibitions and Publications
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven
This paper examines and compares the exhibition strategies of the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements and explores the legacies of these practices for the display of decorative art. The histories of Arts and Crafts and Aestheticism feature significant exhibitions in which the theories, ideologies, and goals considered fundamental to each movement are understood to have been presented to the public. In the existing literature the two movements are usually held to have very different origins and largely incompatible motivations. Proponents of the latter view might argue that the politics of the two movements are played out in their display strategies; we might claim that Aesthetic exhibitions, with their emphasis on creating a harmonious environment for the viewer, reinforced the movement’s preoccupation with consumption, whereas the democratic policies of Arts and Crafts exhibitions represented that movement’s concern with production.
This paper contends that the exhibition practices of Arts and Crafts and Aestheticism were more closely related and more subtle than this binary opposition suggests. For example, by incorporating decorative arts in the exhibition space, Aesthetic displays challenged the marginalized status of such objects in the exhibition world (an imbalance that motivated the establishment of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society). While they may have done so from different directions, both movements thus participated in unifying fine and decorative art. The Grosvenor Gallery and the Society of British Artists displayed paintings surrounded by carefully selected decorative art, arguably domesticating fine art, while the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society elevated decorative arts to a position in which they could be judged “upon strictly artistic grounds in the same sense as the pictorial” arts. By studying exhibitions, we can develop a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between Arts and Crafts and Aestheticism, moving away from dichotomies such as production versus consumption and beauty versus morality.
By analyzing examples, including the international exhibitions in Paris and Turin, the domestic interiors that were opened to visitors and publicized in the periodical press, and educational museums, such as the South Kensington Museum, this paper challenges the straightforward opposition of the two movements and investigates their impact on display practice. It is particularly concerned with the ways in which these exhibitions cultivated viewers’ engagement with objects. The paper explores the ways in which the display of decorative art was informed by, and sometimes reacted against, the strategies developed in Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts exhibitions.
The Afterlife of the Palace of Art: Hugh Lane at Lindsey House
Assistant Professor, Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century European Art
Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem
In 1909 the art dealer Hugh Lane relocated his business to living quarters at Lindsey House, part of a seventeenth-century mansion at 99–100 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. While it was not unusual for dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel and Joseph Duveen to devise mock domestic situations in which to invite clients to view works, it was unusual for the dealer himself to live on those premises as his home. Biographers have suggested the move from the commercial West End of London to the more bohemian section of Chelsea removed Lane’s business from the trade. In this paper, I suggest the appeal of Lindsey House was both more potent and more calculated. Through geography and interior decoration, Lane drew upon the lingering strains of a Chelsea-based Aestheticism to fashion the identity of the “dealer as aesthete.” According to the architect J. M. Solomon, Lindsey House evoked a range of artistic references, but first and foremost among these was the example of James McNeill Whistler. This paper draws upon recently discovered documents relating to the contents of the house in order to provide a fuller picture of its decorative scheme.
The gentlemanly domesticity of Lane’s practice distinguished him from his competitors, especially connoisseurs such as Bernard Berenson, Wilhelm von Bode, and Robert Langton Douglas. He eschewed the “scientific” notion of art attribution that was popularized by Giovanni Morelli in favor of the empathetic response to an individual work of art drawn from the writings of Walter Pater. Furthermore, in styling himself as an aesthete, Lane could use this reputation as a marketing tool to subvert the regularized commission of structures and contracts. Although Duveen stage managed his firm’s outposts and sold paintings alongside tapestry, furniture, ceramics, and enamels, Lane’s clients quite literally bought works of art off the walls of his home. The grandeur of Lindsey House performed a kind of alchemy: each work was a prized part of a “palace of art.”
Aesthetic Internationalism: Whistler’s Paris Studio in the 1890s
Anna Gruetzner Robins
Professor of History of Art
University of Reading, Reading
This paper looks at an interview that Robert Sherard, a journalist and friend to Oscar Wilde, conducted with Whistler in his Paris studio, a carefully designed workspace and showcase for his aesthetic ideals. His studio served as an international center that disseminated Whistler’s aesthetic to American and British artists and other visitors as much as the exhibition of his works did in Paris. We cannot reconstruct the conversations of the British and American artists who gathered there, but Sherard’s interview, Whistler’s correspondence, and other accounts provide some idea of the tenor of the ideas that were exchanged.
Sherard also presents a tantalizing picture of Whistler and the Paris art world. Whistler could see the Luxembourg Gardens from his studio window, and he readily talked about the Portrait of the Artist’s Mother and other works that had recently entered the collection, including Manet’s Olympia and Sargent’s Carmencita. The conversation also turned to Degas, Gauguin, Pierre Loti, Sar Peladan, and Mallarmé’s Tuesday gatherings that Whistler attended. What did Degas and Whistler have in common in the 1890s when they were both important players on the international scene? What were the connections between Whistler and Gauguin, who met in Dieppe in 1885? His remarks suggest we need to think again about Whistler’s role within French Symbolist circles. In conclusion, Whistler was a major player in the international networks of the 1890s, and we need to assess him within this context in order to appreciate fully the dissemination of his aesthetic ideas.
Networks of Modernism: A New Look at Whistler in Japan
Associate Professor, Faculty of Education
Shinshu University, Nagano
It is well known that the American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler looked to Japanese art in developing an original artistic style that challenged the narrative conventions of Victorian painting and asserted his belief in “art for art’s sake.” What is less well known, however, is that connections between the painter and Japan were not a “one-way street” but instead developed into a complex network of cultural and aesthetic emulation. Whistler looked to Japan to affect his aesthetic transformation. After the turn of the century, Japanese artists, critics, and writers engaged in a reciprocal act of artistic appropriation. Japan started to assimilate Western civilization after the country was opened in 1858. Modernization and Westernization were synonymous in the Meiji era (1868–1912). Learning Western art became a part of modernization in Japan during this period of time. Whistler’s ideas of “art for art’s sake” and “beauty for beauty,” as expressed in his Ten O’Clock Lecture (1885) and The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890), were understood to be exemplary theories of the avant-garde.
This paper traces the way that these “East-West” networks of influence operated by looking at the interrelationships among individuals, texts, and works of art that posited Whistler’s importance to “modern” Japanese art.
It was reported in Hosun that Japanese pupils of French painters Raphaël Collin and Jean-Paul Laurens first introduced Whistler to the art of Japan. Indeed, art historian and critic Toru Iwamura (1870–1917) and Western-style painter Kume Keiichiro (1866–1934), who were among the earliest to emulate Whistler, were trained in Europe and the United States. Although Kume’s works do not demonstrate a Whistlerian style, his student Minami Kunzo (1883–1950), for instance, was very much inspired by Whistler, as is expressed in his work Nocturnal River Bank. Minami was also a pupil of Iwamura, who suggested he study painting in Britain.
Whistler’s art began to be introduced throughout Japan shortly after his death in 1903. The news of Whistler’s death quickly reached Japan; his obituary was reported in the foreign bulletin section of Bijutsu shinpō on October 5, 1903. There, he was described as a widely known copperplate engraver and an extraordinary painter in the contemporary art world. Articles on Whistler appeared not only in art journals, such as Bijyutu Shinpou and Hosun, but also in literary magazines, such as Myojyo, Waseda Bungaku,and Geibun. Whistler’s reception and influence in Japan was broadly felt, since his work was introduced in both literary and artistic circles.
By analyzing articles written in the Meiji and Taisho eras, the reciprocal nature of “East-West” dialogue between Whistler and Japan will be revealed. The Japanese embrace of Whistler’s artistic ideas as a foundation of their own conception of modernity suggests reciprocal rather than unidirectional cultural exchange is a key element of modernism.
Between the City and the Landscape: Whistler and the Aesthetic City
David Peters Corbett
Professor of Art History and American Studies
Dean, Faculty of Arts and Humanities
University of East Anglia, Norwich
For American painters working at mid-century and beyond, their most potent artistic heritage was the great nineteenth-century landscape tradition. Artists confronting new demands made by the task of representing post–Civil War America found it was particularly important to negotiate helpful relationships to this tradition. As urbanization and industrialization became ever more central to the experience of American culture, issues of land, nationhood, and identity, which had received conceptualization in the landscape tradition, passed into the understanding and visual formulation of the new urban scenes as well.
This paper examines aspects of Whistler’s painting in the 1860s and 1870s from this perspective. Although his evocations of cityscapes selected places outside North America for their subject matter, Whistler is a key figure in this story. It is significant that Whistler first made the moonlight landscapes that he called Nocturnes while in the displaced America he encountered during his visit to Valparasio, Chile, in 1866. Immediately postwar in timing, and evocative of the South American journeys that were so important to the achievements of the Hudson River School in subject matter, the paintings Whistler made during his still-mysterious sojourn in Chile respond to the powerful landscape tradition he inherited, but they also begin to metamorphose and rework that tradition for new purposes. This paper looks closely at these first Nocturnes, at some of the Thames Nocturnes that Whistler made after his subsequent return to London, and, if time allows, at some of the works on paper he made in Venice after 1879, in order to trace the influential presence of landscape within his aestheticized images of the city. The American landscape and its representations are key presences in Whistler’s Nocturnes, and these images recalibrate those depictions in consequential ways in response to the urban world. This discussion presents the opportunity to set Whistler in a wider American context and to explore in new ways his subtle and transformative relationship with the landscape tradition in the United States.
Enlisting Aestheticism: Beauty, Valor, and the Great War
Instructor, Department of Art History
Emory University, Atlanta
This paper explores the various ways American artists endeavored to employ Whistlerian principles during World War I. Although the Armory Show of 1913 seemed to extinguish the nineteenth-century faith in beauty as a saving grace, a generation of Paris-trained artists continued to uphold Whistler’s precepts of art and decoration into the new century. In 1917, with Europe in turmoil, these conservative artists were called upon to apply their talents to the practical purpose of fostering patriotism. Their dedication to liberating France—the Old World palace of art—challenged them to contravene their own aestheticist ideals publicly. Some contributed works to fundraising exhibitions on behalf of the families of French artist-soldiers; some revived the academic style of their youth to produce inspiring posters and paintings for public display; others voluntarily furnished and decorated YMCA “huts” (the military rest houses designed to counter the dehumanizing effects of war), taking care to harmonize their color schemes with the khaki tones of army uniforms. From our perspective, the efforts of these aging artists to adapt Whistler’s ideas to a world at war appear remarkable feats of American ingenuity, but the disillusionment of war was bound to spell the end of American Aestheticism.
The Frick’s Whistlers
Susan Grace Galassi
The Frick Collection, New York
Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919), the Pittsburgh industrialist and founder of the Frick Collection in New York, acquired more works by Whistler than by any other artist except Rembrandt. They include five paintings, three pastels, and twelve etchings (an edition of the First Venice Set) and span twenty-six years of his prolific output. All were acquired between 1914 and 1918 by Frick in the last years of his life. They are the only works (with the exception of a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart) by an American in a collection of European Old Master and nineteenth-century painting, European and Chinese decorative arts, Renaissance sculpture, and eighteenth-century French furniture. The five paintings are among the latest in date acquired by Frick, and they are a fitting culmination to the collection.
The expatriate Whistler would undoubtedly have been pleased to find his full-length portraits of Rosa Corder, Mrs. Leyland, Lady Meux, and the Comte de Montesquiou and one of his Valparaiso seascapes of 1866 residing in a Fifth Avenue, Gilded Age mansion that houses many works by his artistic forebears, among them Holbein, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Fragonard, Goya, and Gainsborough. The manner of display at the Frick in which paintings and sculpture are integrated into the decorative arts and harmonize with the décor of each room would also have appealed to the artist as a permanent resting place for these significant works.
The talk begins with the commissions of the portraits and follows their afterlife once they were separated from their original owners. It explores the ensemble as a group and the connections, however slight, that unite this group of aristocrats and bohemians who were part of Whistler’s world. The journey of their likenesses through the hands of their descendants, dealers, and auction houses to reside permanently in the United States, to which Whistler himself never returned after his departure at age twenty-one, is addressed using information housed in the Frick archives. The place of the Whistlers within the collection as a whole, as well as the history of their display in the house and later museum, is among the themes of this talk.
Whistler and Art of the Americas
Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“Mr. Whistler will not allow us to use the phrase ‘American art,’” wrote George Smalley in 1902 for Munsey’s, a popular pulp journal founded in New York in 1889 with the stirring declaration (based on Lincoln’s Gettysburg address) that it was “a magazine of the people and for the people.” Smalley, who had earned his stripes during the Civil War as a correspondent for the New York Tribune and later had established that paper’s foreign office in London, added that Whistler, an artist whom he championed, “had long since announced that art is of no nationality.” He then went on to declare that, no matter how unpatriotic his assessment might sound to some of his readers, Whistler’s artistic career would not even have been possible in the United States. What, then, is Whistler’s art doing in Boston in the wing of a museum devoted to art of the Americas?
This new wing includes fifty-three galleries displaying more than five thousand works of art from the Americas—from the indigenous cultures of the ancient Americas to the third quarter of the twentieth century—opened in November 2010 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As these spaces were planned, our curatorial team had a common goal: not to create a ghetto of American art. Instead, we sought to look at American art in context, accepting that it was not created in isolation. We wanted to take advantage of the connections that could be made to the rest of the museum’s encyclopedic collections. We hoped to explore the constant push and pull between nationalism and cosmopolitanism that we felt defined American art. As Henry James declared in 1867, the same year that Whistler first displayed his Symphony in White, No. 3, the arts in America were becoming a “vast intellectual fusion and synthesis of the various National tendencies of the world.” What better place, then, than in this new wing to display the art of Whistler, that master of fusion and synthesis?
This paper centers on the Whistler paintings in their new installation within the MFA, where they hang in a gallery devoted to the Aesthetic movement and to cosmopolitanism. The display and its accompanying interpretative materials are designed to open intellectual doors among the arts of the United States, England, France, and Japan. Rather than standing apart from the art of his time, Whistler serves to bring its disparate strands together. My paper examines the questions inherent in exhibiting Whistler today, from the difficulties involved in creating a gallery of mixed media to issues of national identity in both Whistler’s time and in our own.