Obituary of James McNeil Whistler by Paul Ripley

Home / Education / Articles

Obituary of James McNeil Whistler

by Paul Ripley

Published on 1 January, 2003

Death Notice in the Times

WHISTLER — On the 17th inst [July 17th, 1903] at his residence, Cheyne-walk, Chelsea, James MacNeill Whistler. The service will be held at Old Chelsea Church today (Wednesday) at 11 O'clock; the interment will take place at Chiswick Old Church.


We regret to learn that Mr Whistler, the artist, died yesterday afternoon [July 17th, 1903] at Chelsea.

James Abbott MacNeill Whistler was American by birth, and French by artistic training and sympathy; and French American he remained to the end, in spite of his long residence in London. 1834
He liked to wrap a certain veil of mystery around his early years, but there seems no doubt that he was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in the year 1834, or a little earlier. His father was Major George Washington Whistler, an engineer, and his mother a lady of the Baltimore family of Winane — this southern strain of blood helping to explain the extraordinary unlikeness of the most volatile of painters to the staid and serious stock of puritan New England. In Whistler's boyhood his father accepted a position as railway engineer in Russia, and in that country the future painter appears to have spent some years.

Return to America ¶ Student at West Point Military Academy
In 1851 he returned to America and entered as a student at West Point Military Academy, where he remained for four years; and for a short time afterwards he seems to have been in Government employment-whether military or civil does not appear-as a maker of maps and charts. There is a story of a spoilt plate, the young artist having scratched some fancies of his own upon it: of confiscation, a reprimand, a Whistlerian repartee, and the consequent departure to Paris and to the free life of the studios of the Quartier Latin. 1857
Departure for Paris
This was about 1857, and some time afterwards, in Gleyre's studio (then the meeting place of all clever young artists of the day), Whistler met Du Maurier, making upon him, the impression which is well remembered by all readers of the first and unexpurgated edition — the Harper's Magazine edition — of Trilby. At that date it was that Whistler began to etch; the earliest of the 268 etchings that Mr Wedmore has catalogued so carefully belongs to that year. Two years later appeared the group of 13 etchings known to collectors as The French Set, which were published by Delatne, and which at once made a considerable mark.

Sometime later Whistler came to London and took up his quarters at among the group of artist who had recently discovered the beauties of Chelsea and Cheyne Walk. He lived there for several years, and one of the oddest episodes in the history of modern art is to be found in his comradeship, almost friendship, with Rossetti . Differing in all points but one, they agreed to being artists and in accepting the position with a completeness which seemed to them thoroughly logical. To both the world was divided into two classes only — the artists and the not artists; and the latter was a class whose chief function was to provide for the wants of the former, to accept in grateful spirit what the artists were pleased to give it, and to be heartily despised in return. A crowning instance is to be found in the relationship of both artists to the late Mr Leyland of Prince's — gate, shipowner, collector and "patron." Rossetti's letters to him were published some years ago in the Art Journal by Mr Val Prinsep; and most instructive reading they are. Whistler painted for Mr Leyland the famous Peacock Room — a wonderful scheme of decoration, peacock's eyes on a gold ground leading up to a fantastic full-length picture, the Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine then quarrelled with him and took savage revenge by painting a portrait of him as a devil with horns and hoofs. This picture is still in existence. An American admirer, Julian Hawthorne was wrote "there is an immense and sweet good nature in Whistler." Mr Leyland's experience of it was the picture in question.

The best fruit of the long residence in Chelsea was the series of Thames etchings which Whistler produced at intervals during the sixties, and which were first collectively published by the late Mr F. S. Ellis in 1871. As collectors know, the plates afterwards changed hands more than once, and the later impressions are not so good as those in Ellis's or the still earlier (partial) issues. "Each one of them," writes Mr Pennell, himself one of the best etchers of the Whistler school, "is a little portrait of a place, a perfect work of art." The Limehouse, the Customhouse, and many others from this series from the first moment were enthusiastically admired by a very large number of artists, collectors, and humble lovers of art, and it is mere rhetoric to say that they and their author have triumphed through "the courage of a great artist, which has enabled him through a whole lifetime to fight through the insults and abuse that have been hurled at him unceasingly."

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
Oil on canvas , 1875
60.3 x 46.6 cms | 23 1/2 x 18 1/4 ins

People who talk this way forget that Whistler was not only an innovator — we speak only of his paintings — not of his etchings — but an extremely irritating controversialist. His sharp tongue and caustic pen were always ready to prove that the man — especially if he happened to paint or write — who did not fall into line as a worshipper was an idiot or worse. For the most part the public only laughed; but if now and then someone who was not quite a nobody, like Ruskin or Burne-Jones became annoyed and spoke sharply, what wonder? The painful thing was that Whistler, who did not mind how much his epigrams might hurt others, could not himself stand criticism. 1878
Brings libel action against John Ruskin
The famous instance of the libel action brought by him against Mr Ruskin in 1878, the eminent writer having denounced a certain Nocturne shown by Whistler in the Grosvenor Gallery as "a pot of paint thrown in the public face." The trial was painful to many, amusing to more; in the end Mr Whistler obtained one farthing damages. He relieved his soul by publishing a pamphlet on Art and Art Critics, and the public laughed even more. But Mr Ruskin brought no libel action.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
Oil paint on canvas , 1864
76 x 51 cms | 29 3/4 x 20 ins
Tate Gallery, London
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
Oil on canvas , 1865
52 x 76.5 cms | 20 1/4 x 30 ins
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
Oil on canvas , 1858
67 x 90.5 cms | 26 1/4 x 35 1/2 ins
The Taft Museum, Cincinnati
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
Oil on canvas , 1871
144.3 x 162.4 cms | 56 3/4 x 63 3/4 ins
Musee d'Orsay, Paris

This, however, is to anticipate matters. While he was producing the beautiful Thames etchings the young Whistler was also painting a few pictures, and some of them he exhibited at the Royal Academy. Among these were The Little White Girl (1865), the Symphony in White (1867), The Balcony (1870), and the famous Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1872). One of the earliest was the work commonly known as The Piano Picture; this attracted the admiration of the well-known colourist John Phillip who asked the price. Whistler left it for him and received a cheque for 30 guineas, with which he was well-satisfied. The value is now perhaps a hundred times that sum, so the Scotch painter had a bargain. The Little White Girl had been rejected at the salon of 1863, sharing the fate of many a Rousseau and Corot in those unregenerate days; but 21 years later the Portrait of my Mother (1872), obtained a gold medal at the same Salon, and in 1891 was bought for the Luxembourg. The same picture, it is said, had been almost refused at the Academy in 1872, but Sir William Boxall threatened to withdraw from the council if it were not accepted.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
Oil paint on canvas , 1872
190 x 98 cms | 74 3/4 x 38 1/2 ins
Tate Gallery, London
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
Oil on canvas , 1872
171 x 143.5 cms | 67 1/4 x 56 1/4 ins

As for the general reception of Whistler's works in those days, it cannot be said that they aroused any strong feelings on one side or the other. The "insults and abuse" of which Mr Pennell speaks, and had really been "hurled" at the Pre-Raphaelites 15 years earlier, were not forthcoming. Some artists were greatly interested, some shook their heads, and the public — who of course do not count — were mildly puzzled. One wonders what might have happened if the Academy had chosen at the time to elect Whistler ARA. The irreconcilable might have been reconciled; he might have encountered what a rival wit called "the last insult — popularity"; and we might never have chuckled over that crowning production of a big man's small vanity — The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. But it was not to be, and in 1877 Sir Coutts Lindsay opened the Grosvenor Gallery with Whistler for one of its chief attractions. Here were shown not only the too celebrated Nocturnes but those really considerable works the Miss Alexander, the Carlyle, the Lady Archibald Campbell, and several other portraits which at last proved to a doubting world that the painter was somebody to be reckoned with.

In all the years that have followed Whistler never reached the same level as here. The "Carlyle" (Thomas Carlyle 1795-1881 academic, translator, and literary genius) — which some time afterwards was bought for the Glasgow Corporation Gallery — marked the highest point of his achievement, and the point in which he came nearest to his master Valasquez [sic]. Not even in 1885-86 when he showed the Sarasate ([Pablo] Martin Sarasate 1844-1908 one of the greatest nineteenth century virtuoso violinists), at Suffolk-street, did he succeed in making so deep an impression, though to be sure the libel action and the gossip of friends and foes had in the interval made him one of the most talked about men in London — a fine preparation as everybody knows for artistic fame. The Suffolk-street episode was the perhaps the oddest of an odd career. The most mediocre and middle class of artistic societies in London was in low water, and the thought occurred to some revolutionary to make Whistler president. It was like electing a sparrow-hawk to rule a community of bats. Some of the bats moved out; some followers of the sparrow-hawk moved in; but the interesting new community did not last long. The suburban ladies who had been the support of the Society of British Artists were shocked at the changes; they found no pleasure in the awning stretched across the middle of the room, the battened walls, the spaced out "impressionist" pictures and the total absence of any the anecdotes and the bright colours which they loved. A few hundreds of visitors of another sort came and were charmed, but the commercial test of success was not satisfied; before long Whistler ceased to be president, and the society, under a more congruous chief, "relapsed to its ancient mood."

At various udates after this Whistler held small exhibitions of etchings, and sometimes paintings in London. A set of Venice etchings was produced in 1880, a series of Twenty Six etchings in 1886, and he held a small loan display of Nocturnes, Marines, and Chevalet Pieces accompanied by an amusing catalogue, in which, by questions from his critics, he easily showed how the different voices of the public may contradict each other in matters of art. 1885
Delivers 'Ten O'Clock' lecture
Early in 1885, too, he delivered a lecture in London, before a very fashionable audience, attracted as much by his reputation as a merciless sayer of sharp things as by the fame of the painter.This was the so-called Ten O'Clock afterwards reprinted with a multitude of less worthy and more personal scraps of the Whistlerian philosophy in The Gentle Art. The lecture had a little of Heine in it, a little of The Book of Ecclesiastes, a good deal of Walt Whitman, and the residue pure Whistler the moral being — that mankind is divided into artists (about one a generation) and the rest; that the rest should on no account presume to talk, to think, and, least of all, to write about art, that art is "for the one, not for the multitude," that she neither progresses or decays but comes when she will and when; that she depends not on virtues or vices; that the Master appears and disappears in obedience to no law. "Art happens." That Whistler "happened" too was the corollary; and, indeed, there is no known law, no condition of race or society, that can account for him.

A few years later he more or less withdrew from London to his rooms in the Rue du Bac, where a certain number of very rich people, chiefly Americans, came and bought his pictures at high prices. The date of this great vogue, if we may use that word in a semi-commercial sense began with the exhibition of his pictures at the Goupil Gallery, where such pictures as the Symphony were brought back to the notice of a generation that had been prepared for them by the habit of seeing, over and over again, the best works of modern Continental and "Impressionist" and other. The exhibition had a prodigious success and Whistler's belief in the idiocy of the many received a severe shock. Since that time he took a leading part in organizing the rare exhibitions of the International art Society at Knightsbridge of which he was the president. 1900
Awarded medal at Paris Exhibition
His contributions, however, were not of much relative importance, nor were the works of recent date which he showed in the American section of the Paris Exhibition of 1900. They gave him a medal, of course, but his success was a succes d'estime, a success based on his previous reputation.

Whistler's book is full of evidence of his colossal vanity, and the stories of his quarrelsomeness are many. But with these he had other and more lovable qualities. His marriage with the widow of E. W. Godwin (Beatrix 'Trixie' the adored wife of the artist), the architect, was extremely happy; and to the last he kept real friends. As an artist, none could deny that he had the root of the matter in him, and in search of what to him was beautiful he was indefatigable. Inspired, more than he would admit, by Valasquez [sic] and the Japanese, he was set upon the exclusive task of painting and etching what he saw, with no ulterior thought of utility, or popularity, or what would advance him in position and esteem. He did not invent the phrase "Art for art," but if it means anything it means the doctrine that Whistler professed and practised to the end. Speaking in a lecture on Rembrandt and Tintoret , he says: "No reformers were these great men — no improvers of the way of others! Their productions alone were their occupations, and, filled with the poetry of their science, they required not to alter their surroundings — for as the ... of their art were revealed to them they saw in the development of their work, that real beauty, which to them was as much a matter of certainty and triumph as to the astronomer the verification of the result, foreseen with the light given to him alone."

This, indeed, leaves us far as ever from a definition of beauty; but at least it lays down two propositions that can scarcely be disputed today-that the great artist is one who finds beauty in the actual world; the actual generation in which his lot is cast; and that the artist and the moralist or reformer are different persons with different activities. Whistler's whole work is laid out on these themes. He was a portraitist of persons and places to whom modern costumes and the fogs of London offered no terrors; and from his pictures there is no lesson to be drawn except the lessons of art alone.