Magazine article Insight on the News

Whistler Deserves Four-Show Rating

Magazine article Insight on the News

Whistler Deserves Four-Show Rating

Article excerpt

James McNeill Whistler was the first modern "artist-celebrity." An American trained in France who resided in England, he had as many identities as splendid moods: fiery and vexed, flamboyant and perplexed. He cultivated an irascible public persona, then dropped the theatrics at the door of his studio.

Dead for more than 90 years, the great painter has been resurrected with four shows at three of the most prestigious museums in the nation's capital. And one fact is clear: There's no lack of material.

The National Portrait Gallery, for example, offers 83 portraits or self-portraits of the artist - a fraction of the 400 known to exist. The Freer Gallery of Art guards the world's most comprehensive Whistler collection, one assembled by the artist's admirer, Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer.

Yet these are but warmups for the main event: A grand Whistler retrospective that arrives at the National Gallery of Art at the end of May. Show originally at the Tate Gallery in London and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris - where 3,000 people surged through the exhibit daily - the show includes more than 200 of the expatriate's works.

Welcome as it is, what explains this wave of Whistler-mania? Everyone has heard of the man's mother - the famous 1871 portrait, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, will be on view at the National Gallery - but does his art justify such lavish attention? According to curators, and to the British and French public, the answer is an emphatic yes. The artistic quality, technical innovation and contemporary relevance of Whistler's work warrants renewed ardor.

"People walk into the Whistler show and gasp at the sheer beauty of these paintings," says Linda Merrill, associate curator of American art at the Freer Gallery. "And, of course, that is what Whistler was after. He wanted art to be appreciated for its own sake, and not for its narrative function or morality."

That the coming National Gallery exhibit should have originated in London and Paris is no surprise. The greatest early influence on the artist's style came from French master Gustave Courbet and his followers, with whom Whistler studied in the late 1850s.

Whistler moved to London in 1859 intending to transplant French realism to British soil. Indeed, shuttling between England and France during the following decades, he was an important conduit for artistic ideas. …

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