Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Moore and Whistler: Writer and Painter at Loggerheads

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Moore and Whistler: Writer and Painter at Loggerheads

Article excerpt

There was almost a generation of difference in age between the American-born artist James McNeill Whistler (1833-1904) and the Irish writer George Moore (1852-1933), yet their names are nowadays intimately linked in art historians' minds. After recalling the circumstances of their meeting, then Moore's first references to Whistler, we shall assess the links between Whistler's "Mr. Whistler's Ten O'Clock" (1885-88) and The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890)1 and Moore's Modern Painting (1893).

The two men came from fairly wealthy families and both lost their fathers at an early age, Whistler at sixteen, Moore at eighteen. Faced with their relatives' attempts to discourage them from pursuing artistic studies, their remarkable determination led them to undertake their artistic careers on the continent, away from their countries of origin. First in London, then in Paris, they engaged in a particularly active social life, which did not prevent them from investing considerable energy in their work. The two men met in England, at Victor Barthe's studio in Chelsea. Opinions differ as to the date of their meeting: some place it during the autumn of 1871, two years after Moore moved to London with his family; others in 1874.2 Whatever the case may be, the young Irishman remembers that during those evening classes:

Whistler was the attraction .... I picked my way through the easels and stood at the edge of the crowd that collected around the famous artist. His drawings on brown-paper slips seemed to me to be very empty .... His jokes were very disagreeable to me; he did not seem to take art seriously, but I must have disguised my feelings very well, for he asked me to come to see him.

In spite of those rather negative first impressions, and probably flattered by the older man's interest in him, Moore lost no time in paying him a visit.

I was left to look upon the melancholy portrait of his mother which he had just completed, and gathering nothing from it I turned to another picture, a girl in a white dress dreaming by the chimney-piece, her almost Rossetti-like face reflected in the mirror .... I could discover no correct drawing in [the Japanese screen], ... I think that I despised and hated him when he capped my somewhat foolish enthusiasm for the pre-Raphaelite painters with a comic anecdote.3

Yet, shortly afterwards Moore was to enthuse over the American artist's work which, he declared, "subjugated" him.4 As we shall see, one of the striking traits in his character was his capacity for going back on previous spontaneous pronouncements. That being said, Whistler's invitation clearly shows the artist's interest in the young Irishman, whose personality was probably already quite charismatic.

When Moore arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris on 13 March 1873, he was twenty-one years old; Whistler was nearly forty and enjoyed a fairly considerable reputation in France as in England. Moore was soon moving in Parisian avant-garde circles, the bohemian world that Whistler had frequented for almost twenty years, and he would always remain attached to the people he met there - Manet in particular - and admit that during that time he lived "like a sponge, letting [himself] be soaked, penetrated all over".5 As we know, writing would gradually take precedence for him over painting. Even before he came to achieve his ambition to write Modern Painting, Moore evinced a strong interest in the work of the American painter, as evidenced by various allusions in his autobiographical texts, his conversations and even his novels. It was in his commentaries on art, nonetheless, that his thoughts on the American artist, whom he soon came to look upon as the herald of a new trend, were the most substantial.

If one excepts scattered allusions to Whistler which Moore made while he was preparing himself for battle as an art critic, one of his first in-depth studies of the artist occurs in Chapter 8 of Confessions of a Young Man (1888):

Whistler, of all artists, is the least impressionist . …

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