Four new exhibits show there's more to the artist than that painting of his mother WHISTLER STOPS

July 09, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

You could say it runs in the family. The problem with Whistler is the same as the problem with "Whistler's Mother": They're both too celebrated to be understood.

The painting universally known as "Whistler's Mother" is so famous an image in the history of art that it's hard, really, to see it, even when you see it in person, as you can right now in Washington. From its Paris home, it's visiting as part of a grand retrospective at the National Gallery, "James McNeill Whistler" -- one of four Whistler-oriented shows now on view in the capital.

Seeing "Whistler's Mother," one is tempted to think, "Oh, I know that," and move on. But underneath the guise of a traditional portrait lies one of the artist's key works, embodying the ideas that made him a pioneer of modern art.

Similarly, we tend to think of Whistler the dandy, wit and figure of controversy, rather than Whistler the dedicated artist. Fellow American artist William Merritt Chase summed up the two sides of him thus:

"One was Whistler in public -- the fop, the cynic, the brilliant, flippant, vain and careless idler; the other was Whistler of the studio -- the earnest, tireless, somber worker, a very slave to his art, a bitter foe to all pretense and sham, an embodiment of simplicity almost to the point of diffidence, an incarnation of earnestness and sincerity of purpose."

Fortunately, the current Washington exhibits enable us to see the second Whistler in depth, especially the National Gallery retrospective, which covers his career in general, and the Freer Gallery's "Whistler and Japan," which deals with one of the principal influences upon his art.

He knew very early that he wanted to be an artist.

In 1844, when he was only 10, the Massachusetts-born son of a civil engineer was taking private art lessons in St. Petersburg, where his father was at work on the St. Petersburg-to-Moscow railroad. The following year, he enrolled in St. Petersburg's Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. In 1851, back in America after his father's death, he enrolled in West Point but managed to be dismissed after three years. He worked briefly in Baltimore, at the Ross Winans locomotive works, and then in Washington before sailing in 1855 for France and a life in art. He never returned to America.

In France, he first worked in a realist mode, producing a set of 12 etchings that launched him on a brilliant career as an etcher that would eventually earn him comparison with Rembrandt. In 1859, he moved to London, thereafter his home despite frequent stays in France. In his early London paintings, and in the widely respected "Thames Set" of etchings shown in the early 1860s, he was still working in an essentially realist mode. But he was coming under new influences.

One was English. Admiring the spontaneity of the English watercolorists, and the technique of the English portraitists (especially Gainsborough) who worked in thin glazes of paint, he took to thinning his oils to the point at which they flowed almost like watercolor. Sometimes he even allowed them to soak into the canvas the way watercolor soaks into paper. "Paint should not be applied thick," he said. "It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass." In this way he achieved the washy, atmospheric effects of the Thames paintings, which he called Nocturnes, such as "Nocturne: Blue and Gold -- Old Battersea Bridge."

Another major influence was Japanese art, and he was one of the first to exploit its implications. In works such as "Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony" (1864-1870) at the Freer, Whistler not only introduced Japanese subject matter. More to the point, he altered perspective, cropped his figures at the edge of the canvas, created asymmetrical compositions and introduced ambiguities of space. In these and other innovations, his work increasingly expressed the formal and abstract qualities of art over its representational and narrative qualities.

It was to emphasize these formal qualities that he termed his works "Nocturnes" and "Arrangements." He insisted that landscapes and even portraits were primarily formal arrangements rather than depictions of people or places. "By using the word 'Nocturne,' " he explained, "I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and colour first."

Interest in design

Drawing on another principle of Japanese art, which avoids distinctions between higher and lower forms of art, Whistler also took an intense interest in design and decorative arts, designing everything from the interiors of his living spaces to the frames of his pictures to books and exhibition installations.

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