Whistler Displays Luminous genius.(ARTS)(ON VIEW)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 27, 2002 | Go to article overview

Whistler Displays Luminous genius.(ARTS)(ON VIEW)


Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Art lovers often overlook James Abbott McNeill Whistler's revolutionary genius because of his flamboyance. Fortunately, the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art concentrates on Whistler the artist rather than Whistler the luminary in its new show, "Whistler's Nudes."

Whistler lived from 1834 to 1903. Although he, and later the impressionists, broke through the academic styles of the late 19th century, he's also remembered for his well-publicized battles with critics and patrons.

Whistler was raised partly in Russia, where his father, a railway engineer, was designing the St. Petersburg-Moscow railway for Czar Nicholas I. Whistler flunked out of the military academy at West Point in 1854. Critics speculate that his obsession with status came from these experiences because when he arrived in Paris at age 21, he pretended he was an American Southern gentleman and cavalryman.

Whistler was an immediate success in Paris, as he also was when he settled in London in 1858. The 1860s and early 1870s in London saw major works such as "Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (The Artist's Mother)" and "The White Girl (Symphony in White, No. 1)."

He did most of the female figures in the Freer show in the 1880s, when he already had made a name for his radical use of Japanese perspectives and empty spaces and English atmospheric effects. The spareness and evanescence of his almost abstract Thames River "nocturnes" of the 1870s carry over to the exhibit's luminous nudes, such as "Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl," "Note in Violet and Green (The Purple Cap)" and "La Danseuse: A Study of the Nude."

Kenneth Myers, Freer Gallery's associate curator of American art, shows visitors the beauty and seriousness of Whistler's art by concentrating on what really is the coda of the artist's career. It is the sixth in a series of exhibitions devoted to Whistler. The artist already had experienced the highs and lows of his work when he turned to rendering the female form. He also lost his beloved wife, Beatrix, in 1896 after eight years of marriage.

Whistler won his famous libel suit against the powerful art critic John Ruskin in 1879, but the costs of the trial bankrupted him. To recoup, he spent more than a year in Venice, Italy, creating a superb set of etchings that the Freer showed last year.

Fellow Americans such as Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery, competed to buy his art. They appreciated the radical qualities of Whistler's work, while Ruskin was still caught up in Victorian fussiness. Freer had met Whistler in London in 1890. They liked each other, and Freer began buying Whistler drawings and oils, many of them female nudes.

In 1894, Freer commissioned the painting that is the exhibit's high point, "Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl." He asked Whistler for a figure painting "to, in a way, hint at spring," as the exhibit label tells the viewer. …

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