At the height of modernism, though Whistler’s own paintings had gone out of fashion in the meantime—too “soft” and poetic, undoubtedly—it would have seemed obvious that his insistence on art’s autonomy had bested Ruskin’s moralism, just as Whistler’s avowal of its intellectual character was more to the point than the writer’s belief that the value of a work could be tied to the quantity of work put into it. The price of a work, he told Ruskin’s attorney, had nothing to do with how many hours he’d spent in front of a canvas: “I ask it for knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.” Today’s conceptual artists could only agree, just as they would have to applaud Whistler’s instruction to one of his dealers that his works “are not merely canvases, but are intended to indicate…something of my theory in art.” On the other hand, the moralistic view of art that Ruskin upheld has returned with a vengeance; and once again, as Whistler would lament, “the people have acquired the habit of looking…ot at a picture, but through it, at some human fact, that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better their mental, or moral state.”
Maybe Whistler should have known that morality could never be definitively divorced from art, because he always aimed at a total art of living—an art not just of the individual painting, but of the entire designed environment. And an art of living must always involve, at least implicitly, a set of judgments about how to live—an ethic as well as an aesthetic of daily life. One of the many critics with whom Whistler quarreled observed that although
oblivious to the interests of the working-man…he is—notwithstanding—perhaps the greatest socialist of them all, through having inaugurated in his exquisiteness of colour and ordered harmony, a simplicity—with the use of distemper, matting and muslin—that suggests an art democracy in which he himself professes no belief.
Whistler’s homes, and the rooms he designed for other people, must have been as essential art as his paintings and prints. Unfortunately, they no longer exist, except for the famous Peacock Room of 1876, now at the Freer Gallery in Washington. This, too, led to one of the artist’s clamorous fallings-out and another lawsuit. His patron, Frederick Leyland, had never asked for such an elaborate project, and he balked at paying what Whistler thought he’d earned by the time the job was over. But it might not have been the most radical of the artist’s environments, and it gives a misleading idea of his domestic aesthetic because it is sumptuous where the others were simple.
A biographer is not a critic, but maybe the biographer of an artist should be one. The brilliance of some of Whistler’s work—perhaps even more in his prints than in his paintings—and the radicality of his ideas makes it inevitable to wonder why his accomplishment seems so much smaller than that of his great French contemporaries. Sutherland doesn’t speculate about the reasons for this. These days it’s hard to remember that Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl caused a bigger uproar at the Salon des Refusés of 1863 than Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, or that Monet was more influenced by Whistler than vice-versa. The delicacy of Whistler’s perceptions and his willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of harmony make for an art less bracing than that of Degas or Pissarro. And yet how much life there is in his little Thames riverscapes. Perhaps we need another major exhibition—there hasn’t been one for twenty years—to re-evaluate him.
Would Whistler have respected any evaluation? In what we would now call his exhibition catalogs, he wanted no one’s encomium, but instead some choice excerpts from all of the scathing reviews he’d received. “That is the real Whistler Album if you like! and moreover the only text I could tolerate—for I will not have myself presented by any one—or excused—or explained.” Nor did he want his life written. But while Whistler himself might have disagreed, his art is more than just caviar for fellow artists, and the story with which Sutherland begins his book is a healthy reminder of why. The historian recalls that his fascination with Whistler began with a school trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts when he was 12. “There he was, a self-portrait, right next to his most notorious painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. The memory of that encounter has stayed with me, and now, with the passing of nearly another fifty-five years, it is my reason for telling his story.” Today, as everyone knows, the Detroit Institute of Arts is under threat; there’s been talk of selling off the museum’s collection in order to pay off the city’s debt. At the moment, it appears that the museum can be saved, but its fate is not yet clear. This much is sure: if a great public collection can be dispersed back into the private market, life-changing encounters like Sutherland’s will no longer be possible. His book is not only a biography of one of America’s first important artists, but an implicit reminder that art history must never be privatized.