Whistler is still drawing us


Artist: A century after the death of the American-born painter, his genius remains intriguing, as evidenced by two exhibitions in Washington, D.C.

April 12, 2003|By Jason Edward Kaufman | Jason Edward Kaufman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - In 1879, James Abbott McNeill Whistler was 45 years old, living in London, and flat broke.

The flamboyant American expatriate had just won a libel suit against the British art critic John Ruskin, who called one of his paintings the equivalent of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."

A judge awarded the artist a single farthing for the insult but decided he would make him pay his own enormous legal fees, leaving the victorious plaintiff financially ruined and the laughingstock of London.

You can only imagine how grateful Whistler must have been to get a commission from a London art club to spend a few months in Venice making 12 etchings for publication.

Escaping the turmoil back home, he stayed for more than a year, far exceeding his assignment: Instead of 12 etchings, he made 51, plus about 100 pastels, a handful of watercolors, and a half-dozen paintings.

This year is the centennial of the renowned artist's death, and among the commemorative tributes around the world are two shows in Washington - Whistler and his Circle in Venice at the Corcoran Museum through May 5 and Whistler in Venice: The Pastels at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery through June 15.

These exhibitions include all of Whistler's Venetian etchings and a third of the pastels.

Together, they reconstruct a crucial and fascinating phase of the artist's life, and show him to have been the inventor of a wholly new and intimate way of seeing the storybook lagoon city.

Curated by the Corcoran's resident Whistler scholar, Eric Denker - a man who can recite obscure details about the artist's life while walking back alleys of Venice without a map - the Corcoran show seeks to demonstrate not only how Whistler transformed the traditional postcard view of Venice, but how his innovations influenced a younger generation of artists.

To make his point, Denker has assembled 65 works - pieces by old masters such as Canaletto and Guardi, Whistleresque watercolors by John Singer Sargent, etchings by John Marin and photographs by Alfred Stieglitz. Also, there are drawings and prints by a gaggle of Americans who worked alongside the master, often shamelessly emulating his technique.

Loans for the show came from the Baltimore Museum of Art, including its George Lucas Collection (Lucas was a friend of Whistler's), as well as from the National Gallery, the Library of Congress and many private collections.

Then, as now, Venice was extraordinarily picturesque. But Whistler was after something other than the tourist spots recorded by Canaletto, the ethereal "capriccios" of Guardi and the grandiose fantasies of Turner. He wanted to capture the atmosphere of the "real" city, the city as experienced by its inhabitants, so instead of San Marco and the Rialto Bridge, he focused on musty alleys, damp canal-side doorways and shadowy corners of piazzas. Such quaint vignettes have become commonplace today, but at the time they were a radical departure from tradition.

His control of light and atmosphere, his evocation of the texture of surfaces, and his spare balanced compositions result in images justly regarded as among the most beautiful visions of Venice we have, conjuring a magical place charged with quiet mystery.

It's easy to understand why they drew such a following.

But then, Whistler had not only talent. He had charisma. With his white shock of hair, his cape, his cane and the monocle he changed from eye to eye for effect, he was a character - a showboat in the mold of Mark Twain.

His acerbic wit was as legendary as his litigious nature.

When a lady asked him how he could have been born in so dreary a place as Lowell, Mass., he supposedly cracked, "The reason, madame, is quite simple: I wished to be near my mother."

Then there's the quip he offered Oscar Wilde when the playwright admired one of his remarks. "I wish I'd said that," said Wilde.

"Oh, don't worry," replied Whistler, "You will."

Baltimoreans have reason to claim Whistler as a native son. In 1854, after getting booted out of West Point for flunking chemistry, Whistler worked as a draftsman for Winans Locomotive Works, his sister-in-law's family firm in Baltimore.

He didn't keep the job long, and if his older half-brother had not been an executive in the firm, it is doubtful the 21-year-old slacker would have lasted as long as he did.

Soon afterward, he set out to become an artist in Europe, and never again set foot in the United States.

In London, he became a sensation painting portraits, then lost everything on the Ruskin lawsuit.

But in Venice, he didn't let his empty wallet cramp his style. He would hold court in the Cafe Oriental near the Doge's Palace, and at the homes of wealthy American expatriates.

He borrowed and stole paint from fellow artists, traded artworks for the use of a printing press and ink, and to avoid having to pay the toll to cross the Grand Canal, he would put his watch in his eye and act crazy to scare the attendant.

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