Daniel E. Sutherland’s biography of luminary American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is not only the first in almost twenty years, but also the only account of the painter’s life to make extensive use of the Whistler’s private correspondence to tell the story of his life and work. This engaging personal history dispels the popular notion of Whistler as merely a combative, eccentric and unrelenting publicity seeker, a man as renowned for his public feuds with Oscar Wilde and John Ruskin as for the iconic portrait of his mother. The Whistler revealed by author Sutherland is an intense, introspective and complex man, plagued by self-doubt and haunted by an endless pursuit of perfection in his painting and drawing.
In this, the first section of a three-part interview with Sutherland, the author describes what first attracted him to Whistler and what the artist thought of his adopted home, England.
You’ve spent much of your career writing and teaching about the Civil War. What inspired you to change direction and write this book?
There were two reasons. First, I was simply tired of writing about the Civil War. I had said all that I wanted to say and could discover no new angle that excited me enough to invest several years working on it. Second, I had always wanted to write a biography. I had considered several possible subjects over the years, but finally settled on Whistler, which is a story in itself.
Some dozen summers ago, I was browsing through my home library when I came across a general history of American art. As I read the section on Whistler, in whom I had always been interested, I decided to read a full biography, which I had never done. So, I read one, and then another, and yet another, I think three or four in all, and decided that they left something to be desired. When I contacted what I took to be the leading Whistler scholars and asked if any one of them was working on his biography, they all said “No.” They all agreed with me that Whistler had never received the biography he deserved, but they were themselves hesitant to tackle such a complex character.
I must say, too, that those same experts, and many others besides, were of inestimable help to me as I struggled to understand Whistler and his world. They might well have regarded me as an outsider, and left me to make my own way. Instead, they have offered nothing but encouragement—and much good advice!
Whistler is as famous in the UK as in the US – yet at times he seemed disenchanted by England, once even describing his out-of-town Hampstead residence as the ‘infernal country’. Where was he truly at home, and what did he value in his surroundings?
Whistler was a genuine cosmopolitan. He claimed to be “proud” of being an American, but he felt no deep or abiding passion for the country. He lived in the U.S. for only fifteen of his sixty-nine years. He spent some of his most formative years—ages nine to fourteen—in Russia and England, a result of his father being employed by the Russian government to build a railroad between St. Petersburg and Moscow. His identity as an American came mainly from his three years as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. He was inordinately proud of that association, and although expelled from the Academy before graduating, he always thought of himself as “a West Point man.” He left America for Paris at the age of twenty-one, never to return.
Whistler loved France and the French, and was fluent in the language, and yet, while living now and again in Paris, he spent most of his life in London. He is buried at Chiswick. Whistler’s main grievance against the English was that they did not appreciate his work or concede his brilliance with as much enthusiasm as the people of some other countries. His contrariness and criticism of the Royal Academy ensured that he was never offered membership in that august body. He did serve as president of the Royal Society of British Artists. In fact, Whistler was responsible for acquiring the Society’s “royal” status. But he was ultimately voted out of office (and subsequently resigned from the Society) for want of tact.
Be that as it may—and this is the main point of the biography—what Whistler valued most in life, or in “his surroundings,” was art, and for him, the highest, best, and most enduring art was defined by beauty. One of his strongest beliefs was that no single country, no culture, no era, no civilization had a monopoly on beauty, which brings us back to his cosmopolitan disposition. Whistler had his first drawing lessons as a boy at the Imperial Academy of Fine Art, in St. Petersburg. By the age of fifteen, he had visited galleries and exhibitions in that country, London, and New York. Some of the strongest influences on his artistic sensibilities came from Asia, especially Japan. He discovered or perfected some of his most innovative ideas about painting and drawing while working in Chile, Italy, and the Netherlands. He dismissed as inconsequential what many of his contemporaries deemed defining differences between French and English painting. Putting his faith in the “painter’s eye” and the “painter’s poetry,” Whistler insisted that beauty was what the artist made of it.