SUDDENLY, Washington is teeming with James McNeill Whistler's
Perhaps no other artist's mother is so well known: "Arrangement
in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother," casually
known as "Whistler's Mother," is one of the most recognized
paintings by an American artist. But other works by Whistler have
eluded prominent public display for nearly a century, since
memorial exhibits following the artist's death in 1903.
Three Whistler exhibits recently opened here in Washington:
"James McNeill Whistler" at the National Gallery of Art; "Whistler
& Japan" at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery; and "In
Pursuit of the Butterfly: Portraits of James McNeill Whistler" at
the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. A fourth, "Prints by
James McNeill Whistler and His Contemporaries," also at the
National Gallery of Art, will open June 18.
Taking a fresh look
"It has been a time to reassess and take another look at
Whistler," says Charles Brock, exhibition assistant at the National
Gallery of Art. "He's known by 'Whistler's Mother' - it's an
American icon - yet people don't know the substance and range of
the rest of his art," he says.
Until fairly recently, "his personality has overshadowed his
achievement as an artist," Mr. Brock explains. During the last 30
years, more scholarly attention has been paid to Whistler's work.
Washington is a perfect setting for a celebration of Whistler,
Brock says, as some of the best research about Whistler and
important works reside here.
"James McNeill Whistler," the largest of the current exhibits,
is a major retrospective presenting 200 works including "Whistler's
Mother," which has not been seen in the United States for more than
a decade. Until recently, a show of this size was not possible
because of legal restrictions keeping many of Whistler's important
paintings from being lent. Though several Whistler collections were
not available for the exhibition, the National Gallery of Art was
able to seek out enough other representative work for a
Whistler was born in Lowell, Mass., in 1934. The beginning of
the artist's expatriate life began almost immediately, when at age
9, Whistler's family traveled to St. Petersburg where his father
worked as an engineer for the czar. At 15, Whistler returned to
America and attended the US Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
There, Whistler practiced his art, studying prints by the
Renaissance masters and learning etching techniques. Two years
later, after being discharged from West Point, Whistler began
studying art in France.
As Whistler traveled between Paris and London, he became friends
with the French Realist painter Gustave Courbet, whose work began
to influence Whistler's. But Whistler's artistic path diverged
after Whistler's brother-in-law encouraged him to work from nature.
He soon settled in London, where "the climate for the acceptance of
new art was more favourable there than in Paris," writes Richard
Dorment, one of the show's curators. Patrons were also more
numerous, though Whistler still spent time painting in Paris.
A pivotal painting
In Paris, Whistler painted one of the pivotal paintings of his
career, "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl," displayed
prominently at the National Gallery. The painting "serves to
symbolize Whistler's identity as a Franco-British painter," Mr.
Dorment explains. It also had the "distinction of being utterly
misunderstood on both sides of the Channel," he writes.
Critics guessed at the meaning of this portrait of Whistler's
mistress, Johanna Heffernan: Was it a portrait of a bride? a fallen
woman? an apparition? But curators Margaret MacDonald and Dorment
explain, "The picture makes no concessions to a nineteenth-century
audience's expectation of narrative." Unlike other artists of his
time, "Whistler's realism becomes clear. …