Whistler & Nature casts a new light on the work of the great late-Victorian master, James McNeill Whistler. Born in America, but living in the UK for most of his life, he was known as an artist with a bold personality and a revolutionary attitude towards the natural world.
Whistler suddenly shot to fame like a meteor at a crucial moment in the history of art, a field in which he was a pioneer. It was not by chance that the painter settled in London. Europe was, at the time, the greatest artistic and aesthetic battleground and this artist had a suitably combative temperament. Like the Impressionists, with whom he sided, he wanted to impose his own ideas. Whistler’s work can be divided into four periods. The first was a research period in which the artist was influenced by the Realism of Gustave Courbet and by Japanese art. Whistler then discovered his own originality in the Nocturnes and the Cremorne Gardens series, thereby coming into conflict with the academics who wanted a work of art to tell a story.
When he painted the portrait of his mother, Whistler entitled it Arrangement in Gray and Black and this is symbolic of his aesthetic theories. When he painted the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens it was not to depict identifiable figures, as did Renoir in his work on similar themes, but to capture an atmosphere. He loved the mists that hovered over the banks of the Thames, the pale lights, the factory chimneys which at night turned into magical minarets. Night redrew landscapes, effacing the details. This was the period in which he became a precursor and adventurer in art; his work, which verged on abstraction, shocked his contemporaries.
The third period is dominated by the full-length portraits which brought him his fame. He was able to imbue this traditional genre with his profound originality. He tried to capture part of the souls of his models and placed the characters in their natural habitat. This gave his models a strange presence so that they seem about to walk out of the picture to come towards us. By extracting the poetic substance from individuals, he created portraits described as mediums by his contemporaries, and which were the inspiration for Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Toward the end of his life, the artist began painting landscapes and portraits in the classical tradition, strongly influenced by Velasquez. Whistler proved to be extremely rigorous in constantly ensuring that his paintings coincided with his theories. He never hesitated in crossing swords with the most famous art theoreticians of his day. His famous lawsuit against John Ruskin is an outstanding example. How could two people who were so enamoured of aesthetics, so deeply in love with art, find themselves in such violent opposition?
Whistler the American sowed ill-feeling into an art world defended by Ruskin, Turner’s friend; it was a great moment. He delivered lectures to explain his theories about art and published a work whose very title is a delight – The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. As a pioneer and forerunner in so many ways, Whistler was one of the first to conceive the idea of the total exhibition. When he held one-man shows, he handled the entire event, from the decor of the location to the attendants’ uniforms, and even the invitation cards, thus maintaining his standards of overall consistency.
Whistler – like William Morris in a different way – was among the first to consider interior design as an art form. He created inspirational decorative backgrounds both for himself and for others. His personality, his outbursts, and his elegance were a perfect focus for curiosity and admiration. A close friend of Stephane Mallarme, admired by Marcel Proust who rendered homage to him in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, a provocative dandy in the vein of Beau Brummel or Theophile Gautier, a prickly socialite, a demanding artist, he was a daring innovator. His life is a cloak-and-dagger romance in the tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac, a rousing adventure which should serve as an inspiration to a young generation…
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