England at Last Honours Whistler's Art

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When James Abbot McNeill Whistler died in London in 1903, still embittered against the English establishment, he left instructions that his works should never go on permanent display in England. Thus they can be seen today in Scotland, at the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow.

Apart from some memorial exhibitions in 1905, no full retrospective exhibition of Whistler's works has been held until the present sumptuous showing at the Tate Gallery, London. It brings us fine works that we shall never see together again; not only the 'Nocturnes', but 'The White Girls' and his 'Arrangements' - the portraits of Thomas Carlyle, of the artist's mother and the petulant Miss Cecily Alexander, Whistler's salute to Velasquez. There are also his etchings, pastels and drawings, many as delicate as the butterfly by which he signed himself.

This exhibition can be seen from 6th February, 1995 at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, and surprisingly at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Surprisingly because the Freer Gallery, part of the Smithsonian complex in that city, owns and displays permanently part of the most extensive holding of this artist's works to be found anywhere.

The trouble with Whistler is that his personality - perfect Hollywood fodder one would have thought - is so colourful it overshadows his oeuvre. Tall, graceful and fastidiously dandyfied in his long cream coat, dark trousers and black patent shoes, he was an arrogant, witty volcano, ever ready to sail into battle to defend his cause.

He was born in 1834 in the industrial town of Lowell, Massachusetts, a detail he often chose to ignore. His boyhood and early teens were spent in Russia where his father was a civil engineer. Back in America he was nominated for the West Point Military Academy. Profoundly indifferent to the curriculum, he was dismissed at last for 'deficiency in chemistry'. Hoping to mollify his distressed mother, he travelled to Washington and, with superb effrontery, called on Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, later the Confederate President, and requested him either to reinstate him at West Point or find him a job. He was sent to the Coastal Survey to work as a cartographer. There he learned the art of etching that was to be so beneficial to him later on.

Whistler's artistic gift had already been nurtured in Russia. Now he read Murger's book, Scenes de la Vie de Boheme and fancied himself as a carefree artist in Paris. With funds from his family he sailed to France in 1855 never to return. He enrolled in the largest studio, that of Monsieur Gleyre. He learnt how to prepare one's palette, how to paint from memory and not in front of the motif and to draw from the nude. The artist and novelist George du Maurier was a fellow student. Years later he depicted Whistler as Joe Sibley, the idle apprentice in his novel Trilby (1894). Whistler formed close friendships with Courbet, Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros, more casual ones with Manet and Degas. Like them he was seduced by the newly discovered Japanese prints, their art and decoration. Their disciplines continued throughout his life.

That Whistler was included among progressive artistic circles in Paris is irrefutable, since Fantin placed him in the centre of his painting 'Hommage a Delacroix' beside Manet and Baudelaire (Musee d'Orsay). But in 1859 when Whistler submitted the painting of his half-sister, Mrs. Haden and her daughter, 'At the Piano' to the Salon - a restrained bourgeois scene - it was rejected. When he went to London, the painting was accepted by the Royal Academy and purchased by an Academician. After the hostility to his work in France, London was welcoming. He decided to stay, found rooms near Chelsea, and his long love affair with the River Thames began.

The Thames then was of commercial, social and moral significance, associated not only with industry, but also with poverty, murder and prostitution. Nathanial Hawthorne wrote of it 'hiding a million of unclean secrets within its breast . …