Whistler's Mutter

Let's engage in a little free association. I say Whistler and you say — what? The word that springs to mind is most likely mother, as in Whistler's Mother. The formal title of that 1871 painting by American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler is actually Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, but no matter. Say the words Whistler's Mother and you'll get widespread, brand-name recognition for what critic Robert Hughes has characterized as "one of the half-dozen most famous pictures of the 19th Century."

With typical tartness, Hughes also elaborates on the cruel irony that left Whistler forever linked to the stiff, formal image of his dour-looking parent: "The reasons for its fame are obscure and debatable, but the results are plain to see: Whistler's Mother swamped the rest of his output, turning him (at least in the eyes of the public after his death) into a one-painting man... a portrait of an old lady from North Carolina: On such thin pedestals do legends rest."

The notorious Whistler's Mother is not among the dozen oil paintings included in "James McNeill Whistler: Selected Works from the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland," at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the exhibition's midway stop on a seven-city American tour. It now belongs to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and while it travels a little more often than the Mona Lisa leaves the Louvre, it's rarely seen in the artist's native country. And maybe that's a good thing, because without the glaring spotlight of its fame to distract us, we're left to look at Whistler's work in an altogether different light.

The exhibition draws on one of the world's most extensive Whistler collections — the other is at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. — and features not quite a hundred items culled from a 40-year period. Along with those 12 oils are dozens of drawings, etchings, and lithographs, a few watercolors, and a smattering of such personal memorabilia as letters, manuscripts, and books. There are also selections from Whistler's vast collection of Chinese porcelain and Dutch silverware, which informed his sensibility as an interior designer. Both his design and graphics work were also strongly influenced by Japanese wood-block prints.

Aside from a couple of the oils, however, we don't get much sense of Whistler's achievement as a painter. That's a shame, because since his death in 1903, he has largely fallen out of favor, overshadowed by, for instance, impressionism, which he arguably anticipated. There's even a pale, ineffable trace of Vermeer's Street in Delft in the 1897 small oil panel The Priest's Lodging, Dieppe. But the portraits here, including a self-portrait circa 1896 and some obscure nudes, aren't of much interest. They certainly don't suggest the command of the medium displayed in the atmospheric works the artist insisted on titling with such musical terms as arrangement and harmony and nocturne.

The show does include one of the series of Nocturnes painted in the mid-1870s, inspired by a favorite subject: London's Thames River at nightfall or in the evening. (Although Whistler was born in Massachusetts, he spent most of his life abroad, living at length in London and Paris and traveling widely in the Netherlands, Italy, and South America.) There's almost no attempt at realism and instead an emphasis on mood, although the artist never gives in to abstraction completely. In A Distant Dome, which he painted during a trip to Corsica near the end of his life, he comes close to suggesting the substance of a real landscape rather than just its feel.

Whistler abhorred the narrative impulse in painting, preferring an approach that sought to capture fleeting moments such as those in the Nocturnes. He was a quintessential art-for-art's-sake artist, declaring, "Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like."

One of Whistler's most extraordinary paintings, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (c. 1875), is also missing from the Boca Museum exhibit, and its absence is in many ways more notable than that of the portrait of the artist's mother. It is a work in which Whistler comes close to his stated objective by capturing the ephemeral beauty of a fireworks display over the Cremorne Gardens along the Thames — a dark beauty that establishes Whistler as aesthetic kin to J.M.W. Turner and Jackson Pollock.

It is also the work that was nearly the artist's undoing. Critic John Ruskin's dismissal of the painting was withering. It reads, in part: "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." Whistler, infuriated, sued for libel and won a mere farthing in damages, and the legal costs associated with the trial were financially devastating.

Whistler may have been a far-from-sympathetic figure — Hughes describes him as "an egomaniac, a fop, and a publicity-crazed liar" and "a virulent racist" — but he was clear about his own artistic agenda. During cross-examination at the trial, when the attorney general implied that asking 200 guineas for two days' work was an outrage, Whistler demurred: "No — I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime." There was applause in the courtroom.

While it's not so difficult to see, in retrospect, how Whistler's daring canvases might have prompted a range of reactions, it is much more baffling to explain the seemingly out-of-proportion attacks that greeted the etchings and lithographs such as the ones that make up the bulk of the Boca exhibition. Consider that they were initially written off as "a dangerous precedent," "little jokes," "contradictions in terms," "merely technical triumphs," "scampering caprice," "too sensational," and having "little to recommend them save the eccentricity of their titles." Whistler himself found the reviews so inconsequential that he compiled excerpts and ridiculed them in print.

And in the short run, at least, he was proved right. The criticism eventually gave way to praise, and as Hunterian curator Peter Black notes in the lavish exhibition catalog, by the end of Whistler's life, "he was regularly referred to as the greatest etcher since Rembrandt." We need only look at the etchings and lithographs themselves to confirm that such an assessment isn't so far-fetched.

Whistler was so comfortable with the printmaking process that he usually bypassed preparatory sketches and etched directly onto prepared copper plates. He was as much at ease with portraits of pensive-looking children who appear as if they could have stepped out of Dickens as he was with waterfront scenes along the Thames and the canals of Venice. Not surprisingly, he wasn't above showing off a bit, as we can see in The Unsafe Tenement, a richly detailed image from a French slum that reflects the influence of Rembrandt and Ruysdael. There's a handful of similarly impressive etchings included here, but the show's emphasis on graphics at the expense of painting actually does the artist an injustice.

And despite Whistler's undeniable technical mastery, his overall cultural contribution seems to have been eclipsed, ultimately, by his flamboyant life and personality. This uneven exhibition from the Hunterian Gallery seeks to reclaim the artist's rightful position in art history and to restore some perspective to his reputation. It's a valiant effort, even if it's only partially successful. His mother, of course, would probably disagree.

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Michael Mills