James McNeill Whistler: An Exhibition of Paintings and Other Works

James McNeill Whistler: An Exhibition of Paintings and Other Works

James McNeill Whistler: An Exhibition of Paintings and Other Works

James McNeill Whistler: An Exhibition of Paintings and Other Works

Excerpt

In October 1908, five years after Whistler's death, his biography by Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell appeared in two bulky volumes. It was a work of the greatest diligence. Though it was not until the middle of the eighteen- nineties that the Pennells got to know Whistler well, they must have decided early in their acquaintance to make themselves his Boswell. Their opportunity came in 1900, when William Heinemann invited them to write a book on the artist and, from that time onwards, every conversation was, in part at least, directed at eliciting the information they needed. What they could not get from Whistler himself--and he was a willing talker with a very accurate memory--they filled in from the recollections of friends, exfriends and acquaintances from all periods of his life. They also provided themselves with all the documentation they could lay their hands on (the letters, pamphlets, catalogues, photographs and newscuttings given by them to the Library of Congress, show how systematically they carried out their search). Such were their opportunities, and so great was their determination to make use of them, that Whistler is, of all the major artists of the nineteenth century, the most fully recorded.

In everything the Pennells wrote they proclaimed the greatness of Whistler. For them he could do little wrong, and if there is ever a suggestion of doubt about the excellence of this work or that action, it is immediately countered by reference to some supreme achievement. The result is that their writings have something of the character of reports in local newspapers about the doings of respected fellow citizens. The Pennells were patriotic Americans; for them Whistler was not only a great artist, he was a great American artist. They had little knowledge or understanding of the significant forces in nineteenth-century European art, literature and thought. They could see that Whistler had decided to remain apart, but they did not know what it was that he had separated himself from; nor were they aware of how much, despite this separation, he shared with his French contemporaries. Their Life presents him as a lone giant among pigmies. Today we recognize the absurdity of this view and the tendency has been to discredit the biography . . .

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