Was formalism drilled into American culture at West Point? Neither Edgar Allan Poe nor James McNeill Whistler were notable successes there. The young writer was dismissed in 1831 for gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders, and twenty-three years later, the future artist was declared deficient in studies and conduct and likewise shown the door. Yet it’s hard to read Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition”—the essay in which he claims to lay out the process of ratiocination by which he composed “The Raven”—without wondering what effect an education in engineering and military tactics might have had on his distinctly calculated approach to the construction of a poem. And to hear Whistler tell it, his paintings—vague and nebulous though they might appear—were coolly designed assemblages of line, form and color: “The picture is throughout a problem I attempt to solve.”

The analytical fabrication of an evocation of mist: this is but one of the paradoxes so characteristic of Whistler. Having been born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and having lived most of the few years of his time in his home country in New England, Whistler tried and failed to paint a picture after Poe’s “Anabel Lee.” He nonetheless liked to think of himself as a Southerner and to call Baltimore his hometown—the latter chosen, he acknowledged, because of its connection to Poe, another lapsed New Englander. Ferociously ambitious beneath his pose of indolence, a shameless publicity hound who believed that none but other painters were qualified to judge his art, Whistler was the most contradictory of men. Long before Muhammad Ali declared his ability to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” Whistler had adopted a stylized lepidopteran as his monogram, often adding a barbed tail as a notice of the aggression beneath the charm.

If anything betrays Whistler’s military background, it is his conception of the artist’s life as a series of frequent engagements with the enemy—hostile critics, backward-looking institutions, uncomprehending patrons, philistines in general. He liked to imagine that in his battles with them he practiced the “scientific and West Point kind of fighting,” but it must often have seemed that it was a losing cause. His weakness was his knack of turning friends into foes. Perhaps it’s his embattled stance that’s made him an apt subject for his latest biographer, Daniel E. Sutherland—not a specialist in art but a historian of nineteenth-century America with a particular interest in the Civil War, whose most recent book before Whistler was A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (2009). All the better for a painter who thought that “there is nothing like a good fight! It clears the air—and the only thing is not to have any half measures—for that gives a chance to the enemy who think you are showing signs of timidity, and so gather courage themselves for a general rush against you.”

* * *

Was Whistler just as belligerent toward his art as he was with the wider world into which he sent it? You might think so, judging from reports of how he went about making it: “His movements were those of a duellist fencing actively and cautiously with the small sword,” according to one witness. But no, the results show very little evidence of Whistler’s aggressiveness. Henry Adams can’t have been the only observer to have noticed the contrast between Whistler’s “witty, declamatory, extravagant, bitter, amusing, and noisy” public manner and his art of “nuance and tone,” though perhaps he was one of the few to speculate that it showed how the painter might have been “brutalized…by the brutalities of his world.” That might be putting it a bit too strongly, but still, something must account for Whistler’s conviction that “the Master stands in no relation to the moment at which he occurs—a monument of isolation—hinting at sadness—having no part in the progress of his fellow men.” Whatever the cause of this inner core of loneliness and sorrow, none of Whistler’s biographers, including Sutherland, has ever come close to touching on it. Perhaps that’s just as well, because the beauty of the art transcends its motivating ache—by communicating it in a homeopathic dosage.

But there is something that his art is trying badly to assuage. “Great anomalies are never so great at first as after we have reflected upon them,” Henry James wrote in his 1892 story “The Private Life,” and the anomaly of Whistler is one that keeps growing. Imagine if Giorgio Morandi had written the pugnacious manifestos of F.T. Marinetti. Whistler might well be compared with the character Clare Vawdrey in James’s tale, a great writer who is discovered to be two different people—one a rather vulgar bon vivant who dines out endlessly, regaling his companions with gossip and anecdote, and his double, a sort of wraith who toils away in silence in the dark. The dissociation of the individual into two disconnected identities was a recurrent theme in nineteenth-century literature—William Wilson, Jekyll and Hyde—but Whistler could feel that it applied to him personally, as when, lamenting his failing health as he aged, he complained, “Whistler has for years and years! so leaned on Jimmie that he wore him out! and bore him down to the dust—and took all his joy out of him—and without Jimmie, what is Whistler!—and there you have it!”

Even so, a private life hidden behind the public one presents a problem for biographers; the celebrity will always be more easily represented than the artist. It’s the celebrity who caused Edgar Degas (perhaps the only one of his contemporaries who awed Whistler out of his weakness for a witty comeback) to chastise his American colleague: “Whistler, you behave as though you have no talent.” For William Merritt Chase, one of the many artist friends he eventually fell out with, there might well have been “two distinct Whistlers,” but only one was genuine: “Whistler the tireless, slavish worker, ceaselessly puttering, endlessly striving to add to art.”

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.

* * *

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.’”

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.