The Rap on Whistler
Plagens, Peter, Newsweek
AN ADMIRER ONCE, APPROACHED THE American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and told him, "There are only two great painters, you and Velazquez." "Madam," Whistler replied, "why drag in Velazquez?" Indeed. Or why drag in his contemporaries Gauguin, van Gogh and Cezanne, not to mention his fellow countryman Thomas Eakins? All of them were Whistler's betters, as is made clear by the Whistler exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, on view through Aug. 20. With more than 200 works, it is his biggest retrospective since the memorial shows of 1904-05. Concurrent exhibitions at the Freer Gallery ("Whistler & Japan") and the National Portrait Gallery ("Portraits of Whistler" by other artists) make it a Whistler summer in the capital.
And he just about deserves it. Whistler is a pretty good artist -- three pretty good artists, in fact. There's the portraitist: standing figures such as "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl" (1862), a tour de force of--you guessed it--white-on-white. (The subject is Whistler's Irish model/mistress Jo Hiffernan, who later ran off with another better painter, Gustave Courbet.) Then there's the master etcher, considered by many to be the best since Rembrandt: incisive depictions of such picturesque standards as a dilapidated house ("The Unsafe Tenement," 1858). Finally there's the quasi abstractionist: the "Noctume" paintings from the 1870s that practically swoon over the foggy nighttime Thames. In all modes, Whistler is a solid composer, a master technician (he experimented endlessly with stains and grounds) and a facile hand.
Whistler even lived the kind of artist's life they used to make Technicolor movies about. Born in Lowell, Mass., he spent six childhood years in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father helped build a railroad. …