Whistleriana

Article excerpt

Deanna Marohn Bendix. Diabolical Designs: Paintings, Interiors, and Exhibitions of James McNeill Whistler. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. 330 pp.; 16 color ills., 100 b/w. $68.00; $34.95 paper Richard Dorment and Margaret F. MacDonald. James McNeill Whistler. London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1994. 332 pp.; 205 color ills., 128 b/w. $75.00; $29.95 paper Margaret F. MacDonald. James McNeill Whistler: Drawings, Pastels, and Watercolours: A Catalogue Raisonne. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. 642 pp.; 200 color ills., 1,400 b/w. $145.00

Linda Merrill, ed. With Kindest Regards: The Correspondence of Charles Lang Freer and James McNeill Whistler, 18901903. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. 221 pp.; 16 color ills., 49 b/w. $21.95 Edgar Munhall. Whistler and Montesquiou: The Butterfly and the Bat. New York: Frick Collection, 1995. 175 pp.; 86 color ills., 53 b/w. $45.00; $32.50 paper Nigel Thorp, ed. Whistler on Art: Selected Letters and Writings of James McNeill Whistler. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.184 pp.; 9 b/w ills. $15.95 paper

The wealth of literature that has appeared about James McNeill Whistler in the last few years belies the harsh words that have been hurled at the artist, both in his own time and in the present day. Lucien Pissarro intimated that Whistler was a plagiarist who appropriated his highly touted exhibition schemes from French innovations. George Moore saw him as insufficiently vigorous, and insufficiently French. John Ruskin's accusations, that Whistler's art was ignoble, poorly crafted, and overpriced, are well known. More recently, Whistler has been charged with egomania, moral laxity, and-worst of all-a deficiency of talent that his entire self-publicizing scheme was designed to camouflage. In many ways, the criticisms applied to this admittedly difficult artist stem from his multinational career (and from Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell's enduring characterization of him as the supreme outsider),' as well as from the fact that, in the twentieth century as in his own day, "Whistler's fame has rested largely on his notoriety. "2 And because Whistler's work has so often been measured against the achievements of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas, he has been dismissed as "an important peripheral figure in advanced French painting."3 But peripheral, and French, are precisely what Whistler was not, as many of the new studies of his art make clear.

James McNeill Whistler, the catalogue of the exhibition organized for 1994-95 by the Tate Gallery, the Reunion des Musees Nationaux, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., meets the issue of Whistler's outsider status head on. The essays in this excellent catalogue examine the three cultures that lay claim to Whistler, and the impact of those cultures on him. The authors-Richard Dorment, Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. (with Charles Brock), Genevieve Lacambre, and Margaret F. MacDonald-maintain a consistent image of Whistler throughout. Declining to be seduced by Whistler the bohemian, Whistler the dandy, Whistler the provocateur, they focus on the figure who, from his youth, is thoroughly absorbed by art, disciplined and omnivorous in his pursuit of artistic knowledge, and serious about its practice, even during his days at West Point. Whistler's student years in France (1855-58) were strongly affected by the mid-century etching revival, and especially by the debate between the vigorous realism espoused by Gustave Courbet and the art-for-art's-sake theories of Theophile Gautier and others. He struggled to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory perspectives, producing The Coast of Brittany (1861, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford) and The White Girl (1862, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) within a year of each other. As Dorment persuasively proposes, during the late 1850s and early 1860s, when Whistler divides his time between France and England, he becomes a conduit between the French avant-garde and British painting. …