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.”
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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.