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Selling the Vision

James McNeill Whistler was the original art star, as famous in his own time as Andy Warhol was in his. Cultivating the image of the dandy, he sported a monocle, a plume of white hair, elegantly fitted old-fashioned clothes, and a bamboo wand. But in the studio, he was a “tireless, somber worker” who exchanged his monocle for iron spectacles and left “all gimcracks outside the door.”

Whistler in Vanity Fair magazine, 1878

Leslie Matthew Ward (Spy), Leslie Matthew Ward (Spy), “JAM Whistler – A Symphony,” Vanity Fair, January 12, 1878. Courtesy of the University of Virginia

He was living in a new, modern moment for artists, when the Industrial Revolution had created a newly wealthy middle class, anxious to establish themselves as cultured members of Victorian society. Every artist had to court publicity to gain the attention of both critics and the buyers in this very crowded marketplace. Some, like fellow American Winslow Homer, created their promotional opportunities by adopting an air of mystery and shunning the press. Not Whistler.

As the marketplace expanded, the critic developed as the arbiter of taste in London, and Whistler saw an opportunity to keep his carefully crafted personality in the public eye. Possessing a keen wit and a sharp tongue, he jousted with the fourth estate throughout his career. He called his critics “private assassins,” and dashed off so many angry responses to critics from London’s newspapers and art journals that one of those “assassins” wrote, “Mr. Whistler knows how to defend himself so perkily that it is a pleasure to attack him.”  No matter whether criticism was flattering or barbed, it served to publicize Whistler’s art.

“Symphony in White No. 3 is not precisely a symphony in white. One lady has a yellowish dress and brown hair. There is a girl in white on a white sofa, but even this girl has reddish hair; and of course there is the flesh colour of the complexions.”

The Saturday Review

“How pleasing that such profound prattle should inevitably find its place in print. Bon Dieu! Did this wise person expect white hair and chalked faces? And does he then, in his astounding consequence, believe that a symphony in F contains no other note, but shall be a continued repetition of F, F, F.? … Fool!”

– James McNeill Whistler to the Saturday Review, Chelsea, June 1867

Whistler threw himself into the public arena to push forward his vision and expand the definition of art itself. To proclaim his modernist aesthetic, he presented a lecture, theatrically staged for “Ten O’Clock” in the evening.  To promote his famed Peacock Room, he hosted receptions for artists and critics, all fodder for the society pages and intended to bring attention to his masterpiece.  To present his Venice etchings, he decorated a gallery in white and yellow — yellow furniture, white walls, yellow floor covering. Whistler had stylized the exhibition to set off his pictures, choosing wall colors, frames and furnishings to complement the art — an approach common in museums today.

Whistler's Mother

“Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother,” 1871, Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

In his later years, Whistler’s marketing efforts turned to securing a position in the pages of history. He collected his writings and correspondence with the press in a book he titled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. But most importantly, he wanted a place for his art in public museums, protected from the vicissitudes of the fickle and changing market. In France, friends Stéphane Mallarmé and Édouard Manet encouraged the French government to buy Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, which they did.

By the end of the 1890s, “Whistlers” began entering public collections. He sensed that art was going to America, and made the timely proposition to railroad industrialist Charles Lang Freer to assemble ”a fine collection of Whistlers! Perhaps the collection.” With Whistler’s assistance, Freer did so and his collection, now the largest in the world, is in Washington, DC, as part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Lee Glazer Curator, Freer Gallery of Art
One of the things that’s impossible to reconcile really, is the reticent, beautiful, subdued surface and then the acerbic – even embittered – personality.  There’s not a perfect match between the brand that was the persona and the brand that was the art.

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