The Rap On Whistler

An admirer once approached the American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler (1884-1908) and told him, "There are only two great painters, you and Velazquez." "Madam," Whistler replied, "why drag in Velazquez?" Indeed. Or why drag in his contemporaries Gauguin, van Gogh and Cezanne, not to mention his fellow countryman Thomas Eakins? All of them were Whistler's betters, as is made clear by the Whistler exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, on view through Aug. 20. With more than 200 works, it is his biggest retrospective since the memorial shows of 190405. Concurrent exhibitions at the Freer Gallery ("Whistler & Japan") and the National Portrait Gallery ("Portraits of Whistler" by other artists) make it a Whistler summer in the capital.

And he just about deserves it. Whistler is a pretty good artist --three pretty good artists, in fact. There's the portraitist: standing figures such as "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl" (1862), a tour de force of--you guessed it--white-on-white. (The subject is Whistler's Irish model/mistress Jo Hiffernan, who later ran off with another better painter, Gustave Courbet.) Then there's the master etcher, considered by many to be the best since Rembrandt: incisive depictions of such picturesque standards as a dilapidated house ("The Unsafe Tenement," 1858). Finally there's the quasi abstractionist: the "Nocturne" paintings from the 1870s that practically swoon over the foggy nighttime Thames. In all modes, Whistler is a solid composer, a master technician (he experimented endlessly with stains and grounds) and a facile hand.

Whistler even lived the kind of artist's life they used to make Technicolor movies about. Born in Lowell, Mass., he spent six childhood years in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father helped build a railroad. He entered West Point in 1851 but flunked chemistry and left three years later. (Top of the class in drawing, though.) In 1855 he left for France to become an artist, and eight years later he set up shop in London--a fateful career move. If he hadn't made it, the eminent critic John Ruskin wouldn't have said (about a Whistler "Nocturne" painting) that he "never expected to hear a coxcomb ask 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler wouldn't have sued for libel in 1877, won a judgment of one farthing and been bankrupted by court costs. Had that not happened, Whistler wouldn't have become president of the Society of British Artists and the most celebrated painter in England. Along the way, Whistler went to Chile to help out in a war against Spain, fathered three children out of wedlock and married late--only to have his wife die eight years later.

Oh, Whistler also painted a picture of his mom. For the record, it's called "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother" (1871), which brings us back to his limitations. His real masterpiece, "Wapping," was painted early on, in 1860-64. It's a daring combination of back-lighted, slightly out-of-focus figures (Jo, an artist friend and a sailor) in the foreground, and a crisp, intricate harborscape to the rear. But while Whistler's contemporaries across the Channel went on to invent glorious impressionism and post-impressionism, Whistler painted flat (is his mother a cardboard cutout?), distant (does Whistler know this woman?) and increasingly ineffective pictures. By the time he painted Mary Cassatt's sister-in-law (1888-85), he couldn't do much with a face, or a body, period. So it's "Wapping" for beauty, "White Girl" for love, and mother for the icon archive. Don't drag greatness into it.