The Butterfly and the Scorpion: ‘Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake’

This biography of James Whistler is full of sharp notes of detail and anecdotes that help one glean various shades of his inscrutable personality

When James Whistler died on a sultry summer day in London in July of 1903 at the age of 69, he derived some satisfaction in the end from having lasted to witness the dawn of a new century. Oddly, he remained unimpressed.

For all his legendary brio and flamboyance, he was a deeply introspective man who felt that he carried time and history within himself. We remember Whistler now for that unforgettable painting of his mother, his sensuous nocturnes and society portraits, and his wildly, elegantly weird Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery in D.C., but it’s important to keep in mind that Whistler was the first major American artist to highlight the beauty and mystery of East Asian art and to incorporate it within his own work.

His adventurous spirit and sense of innovation led to a global exchange of cultural ideas in the late 19th century. His admiration for beauty was far-reaching. “The story of the beautiful is already complete,” Whistler lectured in 1885, “hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon—and broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai—at the foot of Fusiyama.”

Daniel Sutherland, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas, has given us a wonderfully precise and meticulous account of James Whistler’s life and artistic growth. The biography is full of sharp notes of detail and anecdotes that help one glean various shades of Whistler’s inscrutable personality; In London, Whistler’s affected laugh was so shrill and bloodcurdling that the actor Henry Irving was inspired to imitate it when he played Shakespearean villains on stage. Then there’s Whistler’s famous exchanges with his friend Oscar Wilde:

Wilde: Jimmy, I wish I had said that.

Whistler: You will, Oscar, you will.

He often signed his work by drawing a butterfly with a long scorpion’s tail, emblematic of the dualities within his personality.

The fans of Gilbert and Sullivan will remember Reginald Bunthorne from their 1881 opera Patience, in which all the philosophical and physical hallmarks of aestheticism were savagely and playfully lampooned as Bunthorne, the aesthete and poet, confesses to the audience that his worldview is a sham:

“If you’re eager for to shine in the high aesthetic line as a man of culture rare,

You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms, and plant them everywhere…”

W.S. Gilbert had in fact based Bunthorne on Whistler, incorporating Whistler’s habit of wearing a monocle and his unruly dark curly hair with a white streak in the front as aspects of Bunthorne’s appearance. The popularity of Patience gives you a sense of how polarizing Aestheticism was and how inherently pretentious and alienating it could be.

Sutherland doesn’t mention how Whistler reacted to Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera, perhaps little is written of his response, but if I were to guess, I think he would have been delighted. Vitriol can be quite flattering, and Whistler seemed to thrive on his notoriety. Antagonism fueled his élan, arrogance his creative energy.

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834, much to his consternation (later in his life he claimed to have been born in Europe: “I shall be born when and where I want and I chose not to be born in Lowell.”), to George Washington Whistler, a prominent engineer, and his southern North Carolina-born wife Anna McNeill. Whistler’s father died of cholera when little Jimmy was still a boy and the family moved back to America.

Mrs. Whistler had hopes of turning her son into a decorated officer and off he went to West Point. The discipline of military schooling wasn’t to Whistler’s liking, and every chance he got, he escaped to the library to read Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper. He caroused and partied out and about Garrison, New York, contracted venereal disease and was finally expelled for outstanding demerits and failing his chemistry exam. “Had silicon been a gas, I would have been a major general,” he joked.

Whistler had always shown precocious talent in drawing and painting, and eventually financed his travel to Paris through a family friend in Baltimore, Tom Winan. Throughout his life, Whistler had a skill for charming people as equally as repelling others, and that’s what made him so fascinating and a little frightening.

In Paris, he poured over the masters in the Louvre, becoming fascinated with the classical lines of Ingres. He befriended Gustave Courbet and the two even shared a lover, the voluptuous red-haired Irish model, Joanna Hiffernan, who was the subject of some of Whistler’s most transfixing portraits, including Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862), and Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (1864). Her collaboration with Courbet was decidedly more erotic, eventually leading to a falling out between the two artists.

Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (1874)

In 1866 Whistler traveled to Valparaiso, Chile to lend his support to its struggle for independence against Spain. Inspired by the unique light of South America, he began a series of paintings that would make him famous on both sides of the Atlantic, his “Nocturnes”. Inspired by the nuances of light and dark tonalities, taking cues from Poussin and Turner and the atmospheric melancholy of Chopin’s Nocturnes, Whistler set out to capture the elusive quality of nighttime scenes. His Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (1874), Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge (1872-5), and Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel (1875), among others, are dazzlingly innovative in their approach to conveying the evanescence and intensity of optical sensations in response to dark and light.

Though the Nocturnes are monumental now, they weren’t entirely well-received during their time. The respected art critic John Ruskin hated them. He hated them so much that he wrote at length about how ghastly he found them, saying, with rhapsodic outrage, that with Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, Whistler was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

Not one to stand by at any provocation, in 1877 Whistler sued Ruskin for libel. He won, but in a strange, spiteful realization of a Pyrrhic victory, the jury awarded Whistler a farthing in damages, and the judge refused the costs. Nursing his wounds, Whistler went off to Venice and made a series of remarkable etchings that captured the fragile, decaying beauty of the city in black and white.

Whistler’s famous fight with his patron Frederick Leyland, the “Medici of Liverpool”, over the resplendent green Peacock Room was no less famous. Originally hired to add some minor decorative touches the room to show off Leyland’s Chinese porcelains, Whistler went well beyond the confines of his commission, and Leyland’s budget, to fashion an emerald lair of gold and green with a large portrait Jo Hiffernan clad in geisha silks hanging above the mantle. Leyland threatened to have him horsewhipped if he ever came to the house again.

Sutherland’s book is a compelling account of one of American art’s most complicated personalities, though the only flaw I can find with it has to do with the book’s title, “A Life for Art’s Sake”. Well, what does that mean exactly? The endless eccentricities of Whistler’s personality and his occasionally brusque and appalling behavior are justified as aspects of his peculiar brand of genius. Delving into to the psychology of particular person is challenging for anyone, let alone a biographer, and it’s perhaps easier to focus on aspects of the person’s body of work and his achievements, though a close look into motivations and certain character traits are always fascinating for any reader.

Deborah Solomon’s recent biography on Norman Rockwell, American Mirror, which dared to look at the famed illustrator’s neurotic habits and sexual repression, helped me understand aspects of his work in a whole new way. Of Whistler’s relationships with the women in his life, his mother, his lovers, Sutherland is surprisingly reticent. Joanna Hiffernan and Maud Franklin, another lover in later years, bore Whistler children who were brought up by foster parents. Of Whistler’s relationship with Hiffernan, Sutherland writes, “Jo loved him, appreciated his genius, and intended to be the woman behind the man.” Not entirely helpful for an inquisitive reader, and it explains nothing of her volatile, memorably strange relationship with Courbet.

I would certainly recommend Sutherland’s biography to fans of American art history. With numerous glossy color reproductions of key paintings, drawings, and etchings, and a beautifully written account of the artist’s adventurous, colorful life, A Life for Art’s Sake is a major contribution to scholarship in Whistler studies and a helpful guide to anyone who wants to understand more about this fascinating enfant terrible.

RATING 9 / 10