Archive for Japanisme

“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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