WHISTLER AND NATURE AT THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM
James McNeil Whistler was clearly the John McEnroe of Victorian Art. Evicted from the élite West Point Academy USA by way of the crack base at Annapolis, for lack of interest in military mapmaking, he soon powered off to Europe to show us how art is really done.
Explosive in temperament he was not a man to mess with – he took on John Ruskin, the priest-like critic of the day – and lost his entire fortune in a madcap libel case - but still bounded back to dazzle the Parisian art world and make another mint to end up back in London living in the Savoy Hotel. Like Oscar Wilde who also came a disastrous cropper when he sued the Marquis of Queensbury for slurs on his reputation, Whistler was reckless talented and different, and made no secret of it. “The Art of Making Enemies” sets out his quarrels with fellow artists Leyland and of course Ruskin. His confidence in his own work seldom wavered – and with good reason. His painting ‘Wapping’ is fabulous, three figures - a forceful bearded man, a second shadowy figure and an relaxed red-headed woman chat on a balcony. Behind them the ships and their rigging, the tenders and lighters of the river trade all are hard at work. He described the picture - with typical gusto - to Henri Fantin Latour, his dear friend,
“Now through the window you can see the whole Thames. The background is like an etching – and was unbelievably difficult! The sky for example is very truly and splendidly painted”.
He is quite right. The affable threesome in the foreground are so real, they could be thoughtful hipsters from modern day East End London, whilst the intricate rigging criss- crossing the painting provides a complex structure to an industrial scene made beautiful.
For all his irascibility, James Whistler was brilliant at making friends, either those he admired and initially imitated like the French realist Courbet or fun-loving contemporaries like painter Fantin La Tour ( whose exhibition in the Luxembourg Gardens was rapturously received only last year.) The band of artistic brothers went boat-camping together up the Thames (’Our camp at Mapledurham’ is a touching snapshot of the chaps’ week as a team, a complex work complete with tent).
James Whistler absorbed the European art scene he set out to conquer. He arrived at a time when the masterpieces of Thomas Gainsborough and the sublime paintings of John Constable had already set out the beginnings of a countryside harnessed to production, ready for profit and trade. It took Whistler and his generation to find an aesthetic to describe their impressive age – a time when engineering feats rivaled those of today, when the landscape was changing into one ready to work and mechanization on a scale never seen before. That needed skill. Whistler explored the glazes and techniques that brought Turner, to public acclaim, investigated Constable’s paint washes and how these artists illustrated a society emerging into modernity with all its potential beauty - and intense activity. Whistler adopted and adapted this tradition as the air in cities like London thickened over the decades of the nineteenth century casting a pall of mist across the urban world. Using the miasma of industrial pollution, he like Claude Monet in his London paintings, infused the scene with a meaningful aesthetic, a sense of wonder and even mystery.
‘Battersea Reach’ is a good example of where Whistler took the art of portraiture and landscape. It is a back view of three women looking out onto a delicate grey river, a sailing boat just discernible The figures are small but important, clad strangely in Japanese style garb with the addition of a parasol further adding to the much admired Japonaisme that had swept the drawing rooms and galleries of Europe. Interesting that at the same time as this 21st century Whistler exhibition goes on tour, stuffed with homage to the distinct Japanese style of landscape, Paris’s own Musée des Arts Decoratifs, mounts a mysteriously presented show of the art which swept the fin de siècle scene. Not simply grey and misty, this exhibition plunges the gallery- goer into a black–backed dark world – presumably to emphasize the obscurity of the oriental perspective, so alien at the time ,to Western eyes. In ‘Battersea Reach’ Whistler presents a successor to his Georgian forbears, he claimed Hogarth the greatest among them, but Whistler’s approach merged their rural landscapes with the hard realities of modern capitalism – the gear, the boats, the machines, the engines and the bridges, all incorporated with an earlier aesthetic to create his own vigorous version of the sublime.
And then there are the Nocturnes. These paintings are the pinnacle of Whistler’s achievement – quasi -abstract colour in the service of landscape, they evoke the same sentiments as Chopin’s celebrated meditations in music. There is only one in this exhibition but it shows how far Whistler had come in the search for feeling in nature – even if his world was formed of the grey and blue and silver of a modern city in the evening, melancholy derived from the quiet river alongside its sleeping docks, wharves and machinery of mechanization. Whistler wrote with his usual enthusiasm to his patron Cyril Flower about his evening beach scene at Bognor:
“A most lovely Nocturne in blue and silver – sky lovely and the sea of an immense distance and gleaming in the soft light of the moon. Go and see if ever you saw the sea painted like that! And the mystery of the whole thing – nothing when you look at the canvas, but stand back and (you see) the wet sands, and the water falling on the beach in the blue glimmering of the moon – and the sheen of the whole thing”
Is it any wonder Whistler had a clutch of keen patrons and even his family collected his work - he believed in his own genius and had the capacity to sell it hard?
When he married his beloved Beatrix in 1888, Whistler became less of an adventurer and more of a gardens man. He painted his house in Cheyne Walk and on his arrival in Paris at the rue de Bac, the couple cultivated a hugely admired garden where he drew his beloved wife as ‘La Belle Jardinère along with many sketches and pictures of the nearby Luxembourg Gardens. It was an idyllic time for Whistler as he entertained in the increasingly verdant garden his wife lovingly cultivated. Pictures from this time crowd the walls of the Fizwilliam-‘The Pantheon from the terraces of the Luxembourg Garden’is a lovely composition with mothers and children in the foreground and the massive dome of the Pantheon in the distance. And there are sketches from the private garden at the rue de Bac that evoke intimate family scenes.
It was not to last. Beatrix developed cancer and the couple came back to London where Whistler installed them in a suite overlooking the Thames in the Savoy Hotel. Some of his drawings from that time are very touching , his lovely Beatrix so ill and suffering, and never displayed at the time. Even as his wife faded away, he continued to work, drawing with his old military skill now honed to a level where even a few lines of pen denote the scene. And there are too his seascapes – which he actually did from a rowing boat bobbing about like Monet and like his French rival nearly swept away on one occasion . Even so he was disappointed when the sun came out “ Nature had gone back on him, he told me,” reported his friend Joseph Pennell “the weather was for tourists.”
Is Whistler under-rated? Compared to Monet yes,
So what does the Fitzwilliam make of this titan of artistic endeavor with his great oeuvre of riverside, seashore, salon and garden inspiration? There are more than ninety works in the exhibition but be warned. At first glance the presentation of the entire show is disappointing. For an artist who specialized in the numinous cloudy quality in much of his work, it seems perverse to display them all in the gloom. They are really hard to see. Uniformly lined up along the wall, there is very little flair here and it is easy to be discouraged by what seem like similar small sketches ranged rather unimaginatively in strict order. The continental -style ankle level wire doesn’t help either, almost invisible in the low light, it looks positively dangerous to anyone leaning towards a picture with the idea of seeing a small figure – some of Whistler’s are less than an inch high – and yet absolutely essential to the composition of the work.
Forewarned is forearmed. From the quiet under-lit monotony of the presentation will emerge the strength of an erratic genius so versatile he is compared to Rembrandt, Raphael and Monet, a powerful figure who deserves a better defined place in the pantheon of European artists.