Archive for James McNeill Whistler

Best of the VR Blogroll

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts with tags , , , , , on August 21, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: We’re not sure how often Venetian Red readers click through to the links on our blogroll, but we are always amazed at the wealth of information and inspiration contained on these sites.  Today we offer especially interesting highlights from this week on the blogroll.   Liz Hager returns next week.

Bob Duggan on Big Think: “Every Move You Make “

Joanne Matttera: “Brenda Goodman at John Davis Gallery, Hudson”

Tyler Green: “Moments of Amusing Incongruity”

Brian Oard: “Beauty and Terror: Essays on the Power of Painting”

Lines and Colors: “On Beauty and the Everyday: The Prints of James McNeill Whistler”

(Photo by Dante Busquets)
We Make Money Not Art: “Postopolis DF: 2 Activists from Mexico”

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The Paradox of Henri Fantin-Latour

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, Printmaking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

The canvases of M. Fantin-Latour do not assault your eyes, do not leap at you from the walls. They must be looked at for a length of time in order to penetrate them, and their conscientiousness, their simple truth—you take these in entirely, and then you return. — Emile Zola, 1880

Henri Fantin-Latour, Roses in a Glass Vase, 1873
Oil on canvas
(Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, England)

Recently, I’ve been revisiting the art of the still-life, and that pursuit quickly led me the work Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). Fantin-Latour is a bit of an enigma—he produced work in three contradictory styles for his entire artistic career. He was an expert and innovative lithographer, a painter of portraits, self-portraits, flowers and still-lifes, but his least-known and appreciated works are what he called his imaginative compositions. These paintings and lithographs, largely inspired by the music of Wagner, Schumann and Berlioz, were considered by Fantin-Latour to be his most important work.

The flower paintings were painted merely for the steady income they provided, but, ironically, it is these paintings, which capture the essence of flowers in all their ephemeral beauty, that made Fantin-Latour famous. In his book, Atelier de Fantin-Latour, published in 1919, Jacques-Émile Blanche wrote:

Fantin studied each flower, each petal, its grain, its tissue as if it were a human face. In Fantin’s flowers, the drawing is large and beautiful; it is always sure and incisive…It is an individual flower and not simply one of a type…

Henri-Fantin-Latour, Roses de Nice on a Table, 1882
Oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon
(National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour was born in Grenoble in 1836—his father, a painter, moved the family to Paris in 1841. Fantin-Latour lived in Paris most of his life, and the Louvre became the center of his artistic universe. He often said: “Le Louvre, il n’y a que le Louvre.” (The Louvre, there is only the Louvre.) Beginning when he was fourteen, Fantin-Latour entered a professional drawing school, where he studied under Horace Lecoq-de-Boisbaudran, who believed that memory was a spur to the imagination. He would set up a complicated still-life and discuss it with his pupils in elaborate detail. Then he would dismantle the still-life—and the students would begin to paint it from memory. This discipline informed Fantin-Latour’s work for his entire career.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Self-Portrait, 1861
Oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon
(National Gallery of Art,Washington, D.C.)

In 1854, Fantin-Latour attended the École des Beaux Arts on probation for three months, but was not awarded a permanent place. As a result, when he was 17, Fantin-Latour began to spend his days at the Louvre, copying the work of the masters, a practice he continued for many years. This deep study of Delacroix, Boucher, Fragonard, Rembrandt, Watteau, Giorgione, Rubens, Chardin, Hals, Titian and others shows itself throughout all aspects of his work. The Louvre was Fantin-Latour’s refuge, and in many ways his painting feeds more on other paintings than life or nature.

Louise Moillon, Basket of Strawberries and Basket of Plums, 1632
Oil on wooden panel
(Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France)

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Basket of Strawberries, c. 1760
Oil on canvas
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Fantin-Latour also made a thorough study of the entire French school of still-life, especially the great 17th century still-life painter, Louise Moillon and the 18th-century master, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin—whose work Fantin-Latour is often compared to. (There are some very obvious and distinct differences between their work. Among other things, Chardin’s still-lifes have a strict frontality, with the elements of the subject at eye level, and the backgrounds are painted in his signature warm brown tones. Fantin-Latour’s work has a cooler tonality, with the table creating a more diagonal line, and tilted forward, towards the viewer.)

Henri Fanin-Latour, Roses in a Vase, 1872
Oil on canvas
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

It was at the Louvre that Fantin-Latour first met Édouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler, Berthe Morisot—and his future wife, artist Victoria Dubourg.

In 1859, Whistler invited Fantin-Latour to London, where he introduced him to John Everett Millais and other Pre-Raphaelite painters, as well as to Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Edwards. The Edwards bought many of Fantin-Latour’s flower paintings, and found other buyers among their circle, securing him a regular and steady income. Between 1864 and 1896 Fantin-Latour painted over 800 floral portraits, and almost all were purchased in England.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Edwards, 1875
Oil on canvas
(Tate, London)

Fantin-Latour painted roses more than any other flower, but he also painted an enormous variety of old-fashioned cottage garden flowers, such as petunias, hollyhocks, tulips, dahlias, larkspur, forget-me-nots, peonies, sweet peas, hyacinths and cherry blossoms. He favored whites, yellows and pinks because he loved the luminosity of the pastel flowers. He had a deft hand with arranging flowers in a balanced yet naturalistic way, and the paintings, with the flowers silhouetted against a subdued background, have an enveloping atmosphere. They have a musical quality—a harmony of value, color and tone—that creates contrast and depth. Fantin-Latour also beautifully captures the contrasting surfaces of the vases, whether Chinese porcelain, enamel or clear glass.

Henri Fantin Latour, Peonies in a Vase, 1864
Oil on canvas
(The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Petunias, 1881
Oil on canvas
(Detroit Institute of Arts)

Fantin-Latour’s painting career was about perfecting and expanding upon his original ideas. Unlike his friends Degas, Manet, Renoir, and Monet, he had no desire to move forward into new styles: he was content to be a Realist. Fantin-Latour had an essentially different approach to painting from his friends who were experimenting with the melding of technique and subject matter that became Impressionism. Fantin-Latour saw technique as something apart—not an end in itself, or something to be integrated into the subject. Fantin-Latour believed that technique was to be mastered before you approached your subject and that it gave an artist the freedom to delve deeply. In this he was influenced by Courbet, who wrote:

Imagination in art consists in knowing how to find the most complete expression of an existing thing, but never in inventing or creating the thing itself.

Fantin-Latour’s paintings were an eclectic mix—Realism tempered with Naturalism and a deep Romanticism—and a small dose of Impressionism. He also took some ideas from Japanese art and photography, both of which were so influential at that time. From the work of his friend Whistler, he learned about cool harmonies, the use of gray backgrounds, and to occasionally incorporate some Japanese elements.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Still Life with Roses and Torso, 1874
Oil on canvas
(Private Collection)

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White #2, 1864
Oil on canvas
(Tate, London)

In addition to still-lifes and flower paintings, Fantin-Latour painted many portraits and five well-known group portraits. He also painted 21 self portraits, about which he wrote:

He is a model who is always ready, who offers all the advantages, he is punctual, co-operative and one knows him before beginning to paint.

Fantin-Latour was a bit of a loner—in fact, after his marriage he was content to stay in his family circle, joined only by a few close friends. He no longer frequented the artist cafés on the Boulevard St. Germain where he had spent so much time previously. His aloofness often affected his subjects, in some of his portraits you sense a cool distance. However, the portraits of his friends and those within his family circle are especially lovely, particularly his early portraits of his mother or sisters Natalie and Marie, and later his wife’s family. These familial works are dignified, serene and beautifully evocative.

Henri Fantin-Latour, The Two Sisters, 1859
Oil on canvas
(Saint Louis Art Museum)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Charlotte Dubourg, 1882
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Portrait of Manet, 1867
Oil on canvas
(The Art Institute of Chicago)

Fantin-Latour painted five large group portraits, four of which still exist.  The painting below, Homage to Delacroix, was painted a year after the great Romantic painter’s death. Like all of Fantin-Latour’s group portraits, its composition and color palette is a nod to the great 17th century Dutch portraitists, particularly Franz Hals. Among those grouped around a painted portrait of Delacroix (done from a photograph taken ten years before his death) we see Fantin-Latour, in white, and his friends, the poet Charles Baudelaire—who called Delacroix “the most suggestive painter of all”—James Whistler and Édouard Manet.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Homage to Delacroix, 1864
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

The group portrait below includes many of the important poets and writers of the later 19th century, many from the Parnassus poetry group, including (seated, left) Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Missing is Charles Baudelaire, who died in 1867, and Albert Mérat, who, the story goes, refused to be depicted with the transgressive Rimbaud and Verlaine, and was replaced by a large bouquet of flowers.

Henri Fantin-Latour, The Corner of the Table, 1872
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

An Atelier in the Batignolles, below, depicts Fantin-Latour, Claude Monet, Emile Zola, August Renoir and others, gathered around Edgar Manet, seated at his easel—the central figure in what was to become the Impressionist movement. Zola, who was a staunch defender of Manet and his circle against the rampant criticism of the day, wrote:

Around the painter so disparaged by the public has grown up a common front of painters and writers who claim him as a master.

Although Fantin-Latour had not joined Manet and the others in their move towards Impressionism, by painting his Portrait of Manet and this group portrait, which showed these radical young artists to be sincere and respectable, Fantin-Latour was making a strong statement of support.

Henri Fantin-Latour, An Atelier in the Batignolles, 1870
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Fantin-Latour’s intense interest in music began when he first heard Richard Wagner‘s Tännhauser, and it inspired his first image of a musical scene, the first of many done on Wagnerian themes. In 1864 Fantin-Latour said “Schumann is, with Wagner, the music of the future.” When Fantin-Latour traveled to Bayreuth in 1876 to hear one of the first performances of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, he considered it one of the most important events of his life.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Scene from Tannhäuser, 1864
Oil on canvas
(Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Finale from Das Rheingold, c. 1877
Lithograph

Fantin-Latour’s imaginative compositions—the fantasies, allegories and myths, as well as the work inspired by the vocal music of Wagner, Brahms, Berlioz, and Schumann—are the least appreciated of his work. These intensely romantic works carried the most significance and meaning for Fantin-Latour, and it was a sorrow to him that the work got such a mixed reception. The visions that music inspired were also related to color, which he said was “procreative in its nature, giving birth to a thousand things which the eye cannot see and distinct from their cause,” and that spoke “to that region of the imagination which is supposed to be under the exclusive dominion of music.”

On the subject of the musical works, I cannot be objective—the first time I saw Tannhäuser, as a young girl, was for me, as for Fantin-Latour, a life-changing event. As an ardent Wagnerian, I find the images deeply evocative and full of meaning—I can hear the music when I look at them.

Henri Fantin-Latour,Wagner and His Muse, c.1892
Charcoal on paper
(The Louvre, Paris)

Critics complained that the allegorical and mythological works were re-workings of compositions by the old masters and added nothing new. There is no doubt that Fantin-Latour drew on his visual memory from those years spent in close observation at the Louvre when creating these works. I do agree that the accomplished, innovative techniques of the lithographs make them somewhat more interesting than the paintings done in this style. However, it is ironic that while Fantin-Latour’s oeuvre is often criticized for being too much of his time, for not breaking any new ground, these neglected musical and allegorical works were in a sense a pre-cursor of the French Symbolist school of the late 19th century. I hope that even those immune to the charms of these pieces will acknowledge that they are beautifully and skillfully rendered.

Henri Fantin-Latour, The Commemoration, 1876
Oil on canvas
(Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture, Grenoble)

I find the eclectic, paradoxical career of Fantin-Latour to be extremely interesting and refreshing. I admire his idea that painting should not be about schools and movements but individual expression. He is considered a secondary painter because he didn’t found a movement or have a major impact on art history—our contemporary standard of accomplishment or “genius”—but I believe his ability to give shape to what he observed and felt with such clarity and elegance definitely deserves our profound respect and gratitude. His paintings may never have been extolled by the art critics, but he was certainly highly lauded by the writers of his time—including Claudel, Baudelaire, Huysmans and Proust—who praises the paintings of Fantin-Latour in The Guermantes Way. Paul Claudel wrote:

A ravishing still-life by Fantin-Latour; a pitcher of blue glass and fresh-cut flowers; each painting bears a hushed silence that bids us still the inner voice.

Fortune Smiles: Thoughts on Musée d’Orsay and Picasso Collections at the deYoung

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Last week’s breaking news that both the Musées d’Orsay and Picasso will be sending a part of their collections to the de Young next year, while they renovate their facilities. The news made me want to shout for joy. How lucky can a provincial metropolis be?  Praise be to John Buchanan and Dede Wilsey for closing the deal.

The prospect of this once in a lifetime exhibition set me to dreaming. No doubt only a small number of the choice holdings will come our way. Still, if by some stroke of unimaginable luck, I were to have a say in the matter, which of the works in these glorious collections would I include?

I’m aching to see my best loves again, Manet’s Olympia for starters. Further, all things being equal, I’d prefer to view works from artists not generally well represented in the Bay Area. That is why there are no Rodins on my list, even though he counts as one of my favorite sculptors. Also, I’d want lesser known works from well-known artists included, which is why there aren’t any Picasso Cubist pieces on the list. (OK, I’ll admit: while I always found Cubism intellectually exciting, actually enjoying the work has always been challenging.)  Though it’s hard to limit the list, for the purposes of this space, limit I must.

My “Fortune Smiles” Top 10 list (in priority order):

#1.
Manet—Olympia

Edouard Manet,Olympia, 1863,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Of the French painters at d’Orsay, Manet will always top the list for me. Olympia is the most fetching of his works—the first truly-naked nude in the history of art. That brazen stare says it all.

#2.

Bonnard—Croquet Game

Pierre Bonnard, Twilight (or The Croquet Game), 1892,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Ever since reading Michael Kimmelman’s essay on Bonnard (“Introduction” to The Accidental Masterpiece), I’ve been hooked on Bonnard’s unique ability to make great art out of the seemingly monotonous details of his life.

#3.

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

The technical aspects of this painting—the perspective, the sheen of light captured as reflection off the floor and backs of the worker, the interacting poses of the workers, the stripes of the floor broken up by the circular curls of shaved wood. . . Stop me,  I could go on forever about this painting! And, on top of it all, a groundbreaking example of urban “realism,” to counter all those rural Courbet scenes.

#4.

Pablo Picasso, Two Women Running on the Beach (La course), 1922,
Gouache on board, Musée National Picasso.
I’ve always loved Picasso’s big chunky, neo-classical figures the most. Though thoroughly weighty, these two nymphs move with the spriest of strides.  They are joy personified.

#5.

Degas—The Tub

Edgar Degas, The Tub, between 1886-1889,
Bronze, Musée d’Orsay.

There are lots of Degas paintings around the Bay Area, but one of his sculptural works would certainly make my d’Orsay list. Not the young dancer—she’s everywhere—but a bather, another of his other emblematic themes. Like da Vinci, this form is squeezed elegantly into the circumference of a circle. See how her toes gently violate the frame. . .

#6.

Whistler—Variations in Violet & Green, 1871

James Abbott McNeill Whistler,Variations in Violet and Green1871,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Whistler’s place in the pantheon of great artists is finally assured. Bets are that the de Young will want his more famous Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, known colloquially as Whistler’s Mother, but I’m hoping the d’Orsay sends this one instead. Since viewing Whistler’s Six Projects at the Freer, I’ve been inexorably drawn to his more ethereal works.

#7.

Gauguin—Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ

Paul Gauguin, Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ, 1890-91,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

The d’Orsay doesn’t own the original Yellow Christ (luckily, however, this painting is at the Albright-Knox and Buffalo is not nearly as far as Paris), but I hope we will get the next best thing, Gauguin’s self-portrait with the Yellow Christ.  I never tire of Gauguin’s palette, which gave a later generation of artists—Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter in particular—the permission to go wild with color.

#8.

Gabriel Loppé—TheEiffel tower struck by lightening, 1902

Gabriel Loppé, The Eiffel Tower Struck by Lightening, 1902,
Paper print photograph, Musée d’Orsay.

The French were instrumental in the birth of the photography, so it seems only fitting to include a representative of this medium on the Top 10. Loppé’s photograph achieves several aims—it uniquely speaks to to the role that photography played in the 19th century in documenting the natural sciences; it portrays this most most French of icons in all its majesty (the Tower built in 1889 was the tallest man-made structure until 1930); and ultimately it depicts unending the battle between the hand of man and the forces of nature.

#9.

Pablo Picasso, Groupe de Saltimbanques, 1905,
Pen, ink, gouache and traces of charcoal on vellum, Musée National Picasso.

I like the Picasso renderings of the Saltimbanques (acrobats), but frankly any of Picasso’s drawings would do nicely as demonstrations that the artist was in fact a master draftsman. Picasso famously noted that he spent a lifetime learning how to paint like a child.

#10.

Henri Rousseau—Portrait of Madame M 1895-97

Henri Rousseau, Portrait of Madame M., 1895-97,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

In this case, Le Douanier’s naive style of painting reminds me of the rigid and unpretentious folk portraits created by itinerant painters of 18th century Colonial America. Rousseau’s stylized treatment of the flora gives this painting a naively decorative quality not found in most other paintings of his day.

Singular Gems—Anish Kapoor at the Sackler

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on April 23, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

anish-kapoor

Anish Kapoor, S-Curve, 2006, polished steel, 32 feet (photo © the author).

File this post in the “Better Late Than Never” folder.  We admit gross dereliction of duty, possessed as we were in January by Inaugural Fever.  As a result of the mayhem, we overlooked posting on quite a number of the exceptionally good art offerings in our Nation’s Capital. Thankfully, we didn’t neglect everything—you’ll find Whistler at the Freer and Leo Villareal at the National Gallery among the Venetian Red pages. We we lucky to catch the Robert Frank retrospective—”Americans”—exhibition at the tail end of its run at the National Gallery. Fortunately for us, the show is coming to SF, so look for a posting in anticipation of that opening in May.

In the meantime, we are reminded that Anish Kapoor’s sculpture S-Curve will be in the entrance hall at the Sackler Gallery until mid July.  S-Curve is fashioned from two 16-foot-long pieces of polished steel placed that are placed back to back to form a convex and concave wall. In its construction, this work references the sculptures of Richard Serra’s, Band (2006) in particular. Further comparison is thwarted by the mirrored surface; images bounce back at us, making it impossible for us to really grasp the materialness of the sculpture.  As Kapoor once said: “The minimalists, of course, were very, very concerned with the idea that ‘What you saw was what you saw.’ That’s it, it’s there, nothing else. Now, I’m afraid I don’t believe that. I’m afraid I believe that what you see isn’t what you see. It’s never what you see. It never was what you see.” (Interview, Greg Cook, 6/2008).

The reflective curvature immediately evokes funhouse mirrors and their distortion of space. The distorted reflection of the space around it is alternately disorienting and fully engaging. It’s challenging to adjust your sight to the distortion, but then again the panoramic picture that morphs and changes with viewer movement presents infinite visual delight. The distorted reflection creates an additional dimension, the space in front of the sculpture, which is simultaneously real and illusionary.  Herein lies the fundamental genius of the piece—although the sculpture is solid and stationary, it is also fluid and dynamic.

Illusion is at work in S-Curve on another level. Like his other highly-reflective pieces (Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park is a predecessor), here Kapoor has pushed the boundaries of surface articulation, or, more precisely, lack thereof.  On these shiny surfaces the artist is nowhere in evidence. The irony of course is that many professionals labored mightily to produce a piece that looks untouched by human hands.

Perspectives (Contemporary Asian Art)”  until July 19, 2009. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Wider Connections

Mental Floss—Sculpture is an Heroic Art

Kapoor interview, Guggenheim Berlin

Big, Red & Shiny—Anish Kapoor at the ICA


Visual Haiku: Whistler in Venice

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Pastels, People & Places with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of colour.

—James McNeill Whistler, The Red Rag, 1878

james-mcneill-whistlere28094venetian-scene-1879-80-chalk-and-pastel-on-brown-paper-11-5-8-by-7-15-16-in-new-britain-museum2

James McNeill Whistler, Venetian Scene, 1879-80, chalk and pastel on brown paper, 11 5/8 x 7 15/16″ (New Britain Museum of American Art).

In the fall of 1879, like many artists before him, James McNeill Whistler arrived in Venice to capture his artistic view of the city.  Ostensibly on a 3-month project, Whistler was immediately seduced by the possibilities the city presented and wound up spending 14 months there, eventually producing some 50 etchings and nearly 100 pastels. There can be no doubt that La Serenissima was Whistler’s ultimate muse: she called forth an original and exciting body of work that pushed the artist farther along the stylistic path staked out by his earlier Nocturnes, redeemed his artistic reputation and, it might be argued, spared him from future obscurity. Although the etchings are perhaps the better known pieces, his pastel from this period are true gems and have been no less influential in securing the artist’s legacy.

Ex-patriot Whistler struggled arduously for decades in London to establish his reputation as an artist outside the tradition of the Royal Academy. By the late 1860s he was accepted, if begrudgingly (his flamboyant personality often got in the way), as a serious and provocative artist, who enjoyed steady patronage. Thoughout the 1870s, however, patronage declined, thereby increasing his financial woes. This situation was certainly accelerated by the artist’s break with Frederick Leyland over the obstinate handling (by the customs of the time) of this patron’s Peacock Room (1877). However, the ultimate nail in Whistler’s financial coffin came a year later with settlement of the libel suit he had brought against John Ruskin following the critic’s denigrating reviewof Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (the famous “I… never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”)

Ironically, Whistler won the suit, but was ordered to pay his barrister with the last of his savings. In May of 1879, the artist declared bankruptcy.

james-mcneill-whistlere28094nocturne-san-giorgio-1880-chalk-and-pastel-on-brown-paper-7-15-16-by-11-3-4

James McNeill Whistler, Nocture—San Giorgio, 1880, chalk and pastel on brown paper, 7 15/16 x 11 3/4″ (Freer Gallery of Art).

Fortunately, in June of that year, The Fine Art Society in London, where Whistler occasionally exhibited, commissioned him with a sizable advance to produce a dozen etchings, scenes of Venice that could be exhibited in time for the Christmas holidays. And so Whistler came to Venice. As requests from Whistler for more money arrived on their doorstep throughout the fall, the Society must have worried that it was being swindled. But the artist stubbornly remained in Venice; he surely sensed the unique opportunity that lay before him.

Well aware of the precedent set by other artists—in the tradition of verdute, painted pictorial souvenirs in the era before photography—Whistler was single-minded in his intent to forge vision of the city that was different.  As a result, he eschewed the grand tourist spots, the motifs of Guardi and Canaletto, for the “everyday” Venice of Venetians. “Little canals and calli, doorways and gardens, beggars and bridges made a stronger appeal to him than churches and palaces.” (Pennells, The Life of James McNeill Whistler.) The everyday was not new subject matter for the artist; in London he chose gritty Battersea over the more established Westminster locales for his series of Nocturnes. Additionally, the artist became famous in Venetian artistic circles for his iconoclastic habit of sketching directly on copper plates in situ, perhaps an echo of the traditions he had observed during his time in France, but certainly a purposeful habit, which made the prints useless as realistic souvenirs.

whistere28094san-giovanni-apostole-v1

James McNeill Whistler, San Giovanni Apostato et Evangelistae, 1880, chalk, pastel, and charcoal on brown paper, 11 3/4 x 7 15/16″ (Freer Gallery of Art).

As the Venetian winter set in and his copper plates became too cold to handle, Whistler increasingly turned to the pastel medium. Fellow artist Henry Woods observed:  “He soon found out the beautiful quality of colour there is here before sunset in winter.” (Pennells, The Life of James McNeill Whistler.)  Indeed, in Whistler’s hands pastel turned out to be a brilliant medium for capturing the atmospheric mysteries of the city. By reducing his line work to the scantiest detail, and his color to just dabs of accent, Whistler was nevertheless able to convey the essence of the scene, whether weighty and substantial, in the case of building facades, or ephemeral, in the case of the open water scenes.

Whistler was masterful in the composition of his scenes, starting in the middle of his page and working outward.  Contemporary follower Australian Mortimer Menpes records Whistler’s own exposition:

Whistler began by “first of all by seizing upon the chief point of interest,—the little palaces and the shipping beneath the bridge. If so, I would begin drawing that distance in elaborately, and then would expand from it until I came to the bridge, which I would draw in one broad sweep. If by chance I did not see the whole of the bridge, I would not put it in. In this way the picture must necessarily be a perfect thing from start to finish. Even if one were to be arrested in the middle of it, it would still be a fine and complete picture.”

—Mortimer Menpes, Whistler as I knew Him, 1904, pp 22-23

Additionally, the artist’s innovative use of the vertically-oriented panorama (e.g. Venetian Scene above) was a most effective way to capture the expansive stretches of water that so fundamentally define Venice.  It was oft imitated by the generations of artists who followed him to Venice.

Though colored paper was first used for drawing by artists in the Renaissance, Whistler recognized the importance of color and pattern in his work and was fastidious in his choice of paper texture and tone. The Venetian pastels demonstrate his exceptional use of paper color as a medium-spectrum tone in its own right.  These rendering techniques infused Whistler’s images with a delicacy and transience that feels so fundamentally Venetian. At dimensions no larger than 7 x 11″, the Venetian pastels are Whistler’s visual haikus, gifts to his captivating muse.

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James McNeill Whistler, The Guidecca, Note in Flesh Tones, 1879-80, chalk and pastel on gray paper, 6 1/4 x 9 15/16″ (Mead Art Museum).

Wider Connections

Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell—The Life of James McNeill Whistler

Margaret F.MacDonald—Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice

Linda Merrill—After Whistler

“The Melody of Ineffable Color”: “The Six Projects” of Whistler

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2009 by Liz Hager

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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.

 

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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 WhiteThe 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 GainsboroughJohn Robert CozensJohn 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. . . 


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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. 

Wider Connections

Whistler’s Studio Methods

Soodie Beasley—Harmony in Blue & Gold

Artorg.com—the impact of Asian Art on American Artists (Guggenheim show)

Whistler images

The correspondence of James McNeill Whistler

James Whistler as the Invisible Man


A Whistler Caprice at the Freer

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on February 1, 2009 by Liz Hager

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James McNeil Whistler, Caprice in Purple & Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864, oil on panel. (Freer Gallery, Washington DC, photo ©Liz Hager)

For those with art on their minds, one of Washington’s most welcomed amenities is its many free museums.  And yet, despite the crowds in town for the Inauguration, the Freer Gallery was inexplicably empty during the morning after the big event.  Could everyone have bolted for home so quickly? Whatever the reason, it was a lucky break for this visitor, who had rooms of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Islamic and American art mostly to herself.  

The gallery was founded by Charles Lang Freer, a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit, who gave to the people of the United States his collections, as well as the funds for a building to house them.  When the gallery opened to the public in 1923, it was the first Smithsonian museum for fine arts. 

The museum houses a sturdy collection of unique Islamic ceramics and Buddhist sculptures from India and China. In addition, the Cizhou ware from the Song Dynasty period is absolutely exquisite. (Chinese ceramicists perfected the use of a deep black glaze that looks stunning on the pristine white-fired clay.) But the Freer is perhaps best known today for is its ample collection of Whistlers; at nearly 1300 pieces, it must be the most extensive in the world. Further, on permanent display at the Freer is what must surely be Whistler’s most opulent and controversial work—“Peacock Room.”  Originally commissioned  by shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland as his London dining room, the entire room was acquired by Freer in 1904 and installed in the Gallery after his death in 1919. (You cannot imagine how luscious that deep turquoise is.)

The juxtaposition of Asian and American art at the Freer is due largely to James McNeil Whistler (1834–1903). Freer began collecting art in the 1880s. He met Whistler in 1890 in London, and Whistler actually persuaded him to collect Asian art.  By the time they met, the influence of Japanese prints and Chinese ceramics was well-established in the artist’s work. Thus, many of the works here carry the telltale signs of Asian influences, either through inclusion of accessories from Whistler’s own extensive collection of Asian art or as compositional principles gleaned from the Ukiyo-e prints. By the late 1860s Japanese prints were well known in London, although by that time Whistler had already amassed a significant array of imported Japanese textiles, fans, lacquer, screens, and woodblock prints, all purchased from a Paris shop on the Rue de Rivoli.  

In Caprice in Purple and Gold, Whistler’s mistress, Jo Hifferman is seen surrounded by exotic and expensive things, all arranged artfully to show off their (and her) beauty.  It is even possible to recognize prints from Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodcut series Sixty-Odd Famous Places of Japan.

Whistler began to design the frames for his pictures around 1865, and he was influenced in this endeavor in part by his Chelsea neighbor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Some saw this as part of his eccentricity; others applauded him for retaining total artistic control. The frame here is of Whistler’s own design; it displays Japanese kimono motifs along its rails and stiles. In its corners are paulownia (princesstree) leaves.

After 1870 Whistler abandoned his ladies in kimonos. However, the  stylistic influences on these earlier experiments did not disappear; they became more thoroughly assimilated into his major preoccupation of this decade—the Nocturnes

Wider Connections

Freer House Detroit

Freer & Whistler

Whistler’s portrait of Freer

More on the Peacock Room

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