Reviving Whistler, his work

Exhibit: A collection of lithographs is being shown at the Mitchell Gallery, where events will include a 40-minute, one-man play about the artist.

Arundel Live

January 17, 2002|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On display at the Mitchell Gallery are 86 lithographs, including three rare color proofs, by James McNeill Whistler. But the intimate, superbly equipped museum on the campus of St. John's College is doing more than presenting the work of this flamboyant artist.

The gallery is presenting a revealing look at the inimitable Whistler himself.

Tim King - a fine local actor and veteran of children's theater ensembles who is noted for his work with Colonial Players of Annapolis, Summer Garden Theatre and Chesapeake Music Hall - will portray the artist in a one-man play Sunday afternoon at the gallery.

"When I took up this project, I knew nothing about Whistler other than the fact that he once painted his mother," says King, who wrote the 40-minute play. "But I found out in a hurry that, in addition to being a great artist, he was one of the craziest characters I'd ever come across."

King took measure of the man, immersing himself in biographies, contemporaneous descriptions of Whistler's appearance and speech, and in the artist's works at such venues as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Washington's Freer Gallery of Art, which displays Whistler's flair for the decorative arts in the Peacock Room.

"He was one of a kind," King says. "This was a man who invented himself. Totally. He was born in Lowell, Mass., but spoke with a Southern accent and saw himself as a true Southern gentleman. His art had great subtlety to it, but he was a very aggressive guy who made enemies all over the place."

An expatriate who studied art in Paris and then settled in London, Whistler (1834-1903) learned the delicate art of etching while a cartographer for the U.S. Navy. This was after his dismissal from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for his "deficiency in chemistry."

As the Mitchell show makes clear, the artist became a leading figure in the late-19th-century revival of lithography, launched in Paris by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard.

Lithography was his main printmaking endeavor after his marriage in 1888 to 33-year-old Beatrix "Trixie" Godwin, who brought Whistler great happiness before dying of cancer eight years later.

The rather abstract romantic poetry imbued in Whistler's lithographs never quite spoke to the heart of Victorian England, which expected greater moral uplift and more detailed storytelling from its visual artists.

Modern sensibilities, though, have come to see these visionary, creative images for what they are: an aesthetic judgment that turns the Mitchell's latest exhibition into required viewing.

"Craving controversy as he did, Whistler picked fights with a lot of people," says King, who has worked into his script the artist's difficulties with employers and such luminaries as writer Oscar Wilde and art critic John Ruskin.

"It may be that he wasn't taken seriously as a great artist until after he died and people didn't have to put up with him any more," King concludes. "Whatever he was, though, he was an original."

The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler, from the Steven Block Collection will be on display at the Mitchell Gallery, 60 College Ave. in Annapolis, through Feb. 27. The museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays.

Art educator Lucinda Edinberg will lead a 20-minute tour of the exhibit at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, after which King will perform his piece. King's play, which is suitable for children, is directed by Colonial Players stalwart Beth Whaley. The play will be performed again at 7 p.m. Feb. 22 at the gallery.

All Mitchell Gallery events are free and open to the public, but registration for talks and tours is required. Call 410-626-2556.

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