Whistler Comes Full Circle; Exhibits at Corcoran, Freer Trace Artist's Work in Venice

Article excerpt

Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler was the enfant terrible of 1870s London. Critics attacked him for his abbreviated, evocative style, but he continued to push his vision despite the fussiness of Victorian art. Only a few understood his remarkable innovations.

Whistler (1834-1903) offended the rich and powerful as well. The artist incensed the millionaire collector Frederick Leyland, his chief patron, by painting over the costly leather panels of Leyland's dining room (now the popular "Peacock Room" in the Freer Gallery of Art) while decorating it - then charging Leyland twice the agreed upon sum.

Whistler's carefully self-orchestrated reputation as a dandified wit and dashing cavalryman from America has too often interfered with critical evaluations of Whistler the artist. Mention his name and you'll hear "Whistler's Mother," the highly publicized "portrait" of his mother that he painted in 1871. His own original title was "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (The Artist's Mother)."

It was a shocker, all right, meant to fly in the face of Victorian sentimentality about motherhood. But he wasn't shocking for shock's sake. He had a serious aesthetic purpose - to reflect Japanese formal concerns of harmony and balance, inferences and nuances shown in the horizontal and vertical planar areas of the room. They were the underpinnings of his art.

One of Whistler's harshest critics was John Ruskin, the era's dominant art critic. When Ruskin attacked his work, the painter sued for libel, and although Whistler won, the 1878 suit bankrupted him the following year.

In artist's lingo, he was "hard-up." Rescue came just in time, when the Fine Art Society of London commissioned him to go to Venice for three months and produce 12 etchings. Whistler was to return with the etchings for the December holiday sales.

He jumped at the chance, fell in love with Venice - he stayed 14 months - and created a group of etchings and pastels that re-established his reputation in London. Happily, many of them form the heart of two complementary exhibitions marking the centennial of the artist's death: "Whistler and His Circle in Venice," opening today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and "Whistler in Venice: The Pastels" at the Freer. The Freer's exhibit is the first of three at the gallery honoring the artist during 2003.

When Whistler arrived in Venice in September of 1879, he was astonished by the city's visual richness. Prominent artists such as Canaletto, Guardi, Turner and Bonington had depicted Venice's popular tourist sites during the preceding two centuries. The painter was looking for something new. He found it in the Venice of the everyday Venetians, the extended limpid lagoons, hidden alleys, shop fronts, peaceful canals and secluded squares. The artist showed the city with all its warts. He painted and made prints of Venice as the decaying, economic outback it was at the time.

Finding that the city displayed its most beautiful colors at sunset, that's the time of day he typically worked, despite the unusually chilly fall and winter of 1879-80.

Whistler often sketched scenes, like that depicted in the chalk-and-pastel-on-brown-paper "The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore" (1880), in a boat moored in the canal and then finished them at his hotel. …