Even with his “real self” hidden, though, it’s easy to see why Whistler has long been catnip to biographers. His life was unusual almost from the beginning—at least from the age of 9, when he moved with his family from Springfield, Massachusetts, to St. Petersburg, Russia. The year was 1843, and his father—one of the country’s leading civil engineers and a former West Pointer himself—had been hired by Czar Nicholas I to head the construction of a rail line to Moscow. George Whistler was remembered by a West Point classmate as “too much of an artist to be an engineer,” but it would be his son who would fulfill the father’s artistic vocation. It was in St. Petersburg that the boy began studying art, privately at first and then, in 1845, at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Unfortunately, Sutherland does not have much to say about what he learned there, but his talent was recognized early; a Scottish painter who had been commissioned to paint a portrait of the czar advised George Whistler’s wife, Anna, that “your little boy has uncommon genius, but do not urge him beyond his inclination.” No worries: the inclination was there, despite the mother’s assurance that her son’s talent “had been only cultivated as an amusement.”
It was Anna Whistler, of course, whose portrait would eventually become one of the most renowned works of American art. Here, too, is something about which I wish Sutherland had been more curious—even, if necessary, speculative. Anna was a woman of deep and unshakable piety, exactly the kind of person you’d expect to exert a suffocating influence on a child with her son’s artistic and, eventually, bohemian inclinations and seeming immunity to religious feeling. When they were young artists in Paris, one of Whistler’s friends, hearing him mention his mother, exclaimed, “Your mother? Who would have thought of you having a mother, Jimmy?” She did, soon enough, destroy some of her son’s drawings that she’d come across: “They may have been Artistic, but they disgusted me,” she said. Even after Anna followed her son to London, she remained stalwart, going so far as to press her religious tracts on Jimmy’s friend Algernon Charles Swinburne in the hope, Sutherland says, of saving that most decadent poet’s soul. Yet far from wanting to get out from under his mother’s thumb, Whistler remained devoted to her all her life and was devastated by her death as he would be, later, only by that of his beloved wife, Trixie.
Yet something of Anna’s austerity—embodied in the blunt geometrical structure of the portrait in which he immortalized her—remained an unshakeable essence of Whistler’s art. Denys Sutton, in a fifty-year-old monograph that still remains probably the best general overview of the artist’s work, wrote of “the difficulties facing him when trying to paint the nude,” and shrewdly noted that “a sort of innate puritanism made him reluctant to come to grips” with this theme. Whistler’s life may have been a challenge to his mother’s sense of propriety—living and fathering children with his favorite models (first Joanna Hiffernan, then Maud Franklin) before his marriage—but his paintings tended to etherealize his passions to the point of respectability: compare Whistler’s paintings of Hiffernan with the lavishly sensual depictions of her that Gustave Courbet painted when the three of them spent time together in Trouville, on the Norman coast, in 1865. As Sutherland points out, Whistler was better able to handle the nude “with pen, pencil, crayon, and chalk” than oil paint—as though he was more comfortable with the female body as idea than as substance.
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Despite George Whistler’s (possibly repressed) artistic inclinations, his relations with his son seem to have been more formal than Anna’s. But the elder Whistler’s death in 1849—when he was only 48 years old—knocked the boy off-balance. So too, perhaps, did the resultant return to New England, which must have seemed pretty dull after the pomp of the court in St. Petersburg. If West Point wasn’t quite the right place for him, neither was Whistler’s subsequent employment drawing maps for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, DC. By 1855, he’d made his way to Paris, where he quickly saw that the liveliest art was that of Courbet and his followers. He banded together with two of these young realists, Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros, as a self-proclaimed Société des Trois.
Whistler seemed to be making his way in Paris, yet in 1859 he crossed the Channel and set himself up in London. In retrospect, this move can look like a big mistake. As far as painting goes, Paris really was the “capital of the nineteenth century,” in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, and London a provincial backwater by comparison. One of London’s attractions, though, was that Whistler’s sister Debo lived there, married to an English physician who was also a successful artist, renowned for his etchings—so he had a reliable support structure. But even on a broader level, the superiority of Paris would not have been so clear at the time. Intellectually, England was in ferment; as Sutherland points out, 1859 was the year such works as Darwin’s Origin of Species, FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and Mill’s On Liberty were published—not to mention one of the most popular books of the century, Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help. And a new phalanx of patrons was being minted by the Industrial Revolution, men who, as Sutherland says, “were often more willing than the old ones to invest in ‘modern’ art. Coming themselves from the middle classes, they did not hesitate to associate socially with artists, even bohemians.”
Whistler would sour on London eventually. Maybe it started with the attack on him by England’s most prominent critic, John Ruskin, in 1878. In response to Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875), the old man thundered, “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Thus began one of art history’s most notorious court cases: Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, turning the courtroom into a debating chamber on the aesthetics and economics of art. The jury found in favor of Whistler but awarded him only a farthing in damages; with no compensation, the legal fees were ruinous. But Ruskin was hardly laughing: imagine that the condemnation of one of England’s most influential critics was worth only a farthing! It was, he grumbled, a “triumph of ‘the Clever’ over ‘the Right.’”