Since no man is elected to the Hall of Fame while yet alive, the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler could never express his reactions at being enshrined in a becolumned institution as one of a group of Americans that includes statesmen and inventors and captains of industry. However, we can be certain that, had he been able to do so, Whistler would have denounced the whole proceeding. For he made jokes about formal institutions, often denied that he was an American, and always insisted statesmen and inventors and captains of industry were completely unworthy to be in the same room with an artist.
The great French painter Degas once said to Whistler, "My friend, you behave as if you had no talent." He himself drew as his signature a butterfly with the sting of a wasp in its tail. This was an accurate symbol of the personality he showed to the world, but we would not be discussing him today were there not much more to him than that. He was among the most original and influential of all English-speaking artists.
However, Whistler never put down roots in any single place or nation. He was born in Massachusetts on July 10, 1834, son to a civil engineer who moved from task to task. While still in short trousers, the boy lived in three American communities, in England, and in Russia where his father was called by the czar to build a railroad. He was enjoying the luxuries of the world's most lavish imperial court when the father died and he was shifted to a frozen New England farmhouse to be kept by his mother perpetually engaged in chores. He was sent to West Point, but dismissed for failure in chemistry. "Had silicon been a gas," he was to explain, "I would have been a major general." He worked in a locomotive works and then in the Coastal Survey. All this before he was twenty-one!
At twenty-one, Whistler left America forever. He sailed to a physical France, but actually he struggled on sinewy butterfly wings toward the only region where he ever felt at home: the world of art. For the rest of his life, his mind tried to inhabit that visionary land while his feet walked more tangible bottoms: the alleys and damp studios of Paris's artistic