“The Melody of Ineffable Color”: “The Six Projects” of Whistler
Above left— James McNeill Whistler, Variations in Blue & Green, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery); Above right—James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White & Red, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery)
James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was the personification of contradiction. Born an American, he straddled the French and English artistic traditions. Firmly planted in neither, the artist remained outside the European art scene for much of his lifetime. Although a dedicated and hard-working artist with extraordinarily high standards, Whistler’s reputation as an artistic genius wasn’t secured until the last decade of his life. While interest in his career waned between the two World Wars, Whistler returned to favor beginning in 1960s. The reopening of the Freer Gallery in 1993 with its some 1700 works helped support new scholarship on the artist. As a result, Whistler’s oeuvre has come to be viewed as a unique bridge between the French stylistic focus on color and form and the English narrative and portrait traditions. For his pursuit of art for art’s sake (i.e. art having no meaning other than the beauty it creates), many consider him a precursor of abstract art.
For many years the brilliance of Whistler’s work was eclipsed by the achievements of the twin French giants of his time, Manet and Monet, who also concerned themselves with the atmospheric effects created by light. Additionally, Whistler’s notorious reputation as an egomaniac, dandy, Bohemian, provocateur and instigator of lawsuits interfered with more serious consideration of his work. Finally, in the face of the pre-Rafaelite rage that swept England in the 1870s, many critics disdained the artist’s work for its lack of social commentary. (John Ruskin famously pronounced Whistler’s art “unfinished,” “overpriced,” and a “wilfull imposture.” Whistler sued for libel and won.)
Whistler left American to live in France in 1855 at the age of 21. He moved to London, where in 1863 he discovered the art of Japan, and began zealously collecting all sorts of objects. Within two years he had so integrated Japanese principles of composition—a preference for tonal harmonies and flatness of perspective—into his already delicate, ethereal style that the two were often indistinguishable in his work.
Above left— James McNeill Whistler, The White Symphony, Three Girls, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery); Above right—James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Blue & Pink, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery)
In 1865, when the second Symphony in White, The Little White Girl was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Whistler met Albert Moore, a minor English painter in the romantic pre-Rafaelite style with a preference for classical themes. (Whistler was already “thick as thieves” with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, although it doesn’t seem that the latter influenced him stylistically.) Together they explored the ideals of “Art for Art’s sake;” that is to say, they immersed themselves in the decorative to the exclusion of overt narrative and moral content. As a result, Whistler became one of the most visible members of the Aesthetic Movement.
In 1865 Whistler embarked on a commission for his London patron F. R. Leyland. The resulting oil sketches, known as The Six Projects, featured classically-draped women and flowers. They were conceived as preliminary explorations of various color harmony, executed as studies for a series of larger paintings. The influence of Moore can be seen in the sketches; they display a fusion of Whistler’s particular hybrid japonisme style with an entirely different tradition: that of classical Greece.
The Elgin Marbles played a role in Whistler’s execution of the sketches, as did 3rd century BCE Tanagra figurines from Boetia, tombs containing the figures having been discovered in the mid-1860s. We know from his sketchbooks that the artist preoccupied himself with both the linear and the textural quality of these statues. Whistler’s handling of paint in The Six Projects references the English watercolorists of the 18th and early 19th centuries— Thomas Gainsborough, John Robert Cozens, John Warwick Smith and William Blake. By thinning his paints with a mixture of turpentine, linseed oil and copal or mastic resin in the manner of Gainsborough, the artist achieved truly sublime suggestion of form using just the slenderest trace of a gesture with his brush. The thin ribbons of brushstrokes and glaze work brilliantly with the ground wash to create mood and mass.
Poet Algernon Swinburne wrote this about The Six Projects in his Notes on Some Pictures of 1868:
The great picture which Mr. Whistler has now in hand is not yet finished enough for any critical detail to be possible; it shows already promise of a more majestic and excellent beauty of form than his earlier studies, and of the old delicacy and melody of ineffable colour. . . In all of these the main strings touched are certain varying chords of blue and white, not without interludes of the bright and tender tones of floral purple or red. . . They all have immediate beauty, they all give the direct delight of natural things; they seem to have grown as a flower grows, not in any forcing-house of ingenious and laborious cunning. This indeed is in my eyes a special quality of Mr. Whistler’s genius; a freshness and fullness of the loveliest life of things, with a high clear power upon them which seems to educe a picture as the sun does a blossom or fruit. . .
Above left— James McNeill Whistler, Venue, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery); Above right—James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Green & Violet, 1868, oil on panel (Freer Gallery)
After 1870, Whistler abandoned the The Six Projects (the commission was never completed) for portraits and night scenes. However, the wash and glazing techniques, as well as attention to decorative design, was to stay with him for the rest of his career.
Soodie Beasley—Harmony in Blue & Gold
Artorg.com—the impact of Asian Art on American Artists (Guggenheim show)
The correspondence of James McNeill Whistler