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American Attitude: Whistler and His Followers

March 14 - June 6, 2004


Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, commonly known as "Whistler's Mother," is one of those rare paintings that seldom leaves its home museum, the Musée d'Orsay, in Paris. This legendary work will travel to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) for a special appearance in the exhibition American Attitude: Whistler and His Followers, March 14 - June 6, 2004. American Attitude focuses on the influential American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834­1903) and the impact his innovative style had on a generation of American artists at the turn of the 20th century. ( right: James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Photo: J.G. Berizzi. Photo Credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resources, NY.)

The 63 pieces in the show include 13 paintings by Whistler as well as works by other prominent American artists such as John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Henry Ossawa Tanner. Whistler's paintings will be juxtaposed with those of his followers, clearly showing how Whistler's artistic inventiveness and radical ideas about composition and color influenced his contemporaries and affected American art.

"This exhibition celebrates the legacy of a preeminent American artist whose pioneering style truly embodied the American spirit," said Graham W. J. Beal, DIA director. "The DIA is in the unique position of presenting two of Whistler's most important paintings here in Detroit, the renowned 'Whistler's Mother' together with our own Nocturne in Black and Gold. This special opportunity, made possible by a rare loan agreement with the Musée d'Orsay, is a testament to the DIA's stature and to the exceptional experiences we're able to offer our visitors."

Whistler left the United States at age 21 to study and work in Paris and London, both international centers for fine art. Though he never returned to the U.S., he was always considered an American artist. His treatment of color, composition and portraiture was often criticized and rejected by European audiences, but American artists were intrigued and inspired by his modern approach and original style. Whistler's celebrity was on the rise in the U.S. throughout the 1880s, but he secured enduring fame in 1891, when the French government purchased "Whistler's Mother," one of the most well-known American paintings in the world. ( right: James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey: Portrait of the Painter, ca. 1872, oil on canvas. The Detroit Institute of Arts.)

Unlike his contemporaries, Whistler was not interested in telling a moral story or in idealizing the subjects in his paintings. He considered subject matter less important than constructing harmonies of color and composition, and focused on creating a mood or atmosphere in his work. For example, "Whistler's Mother," was criticized for its lack of sentimentality and warmth, qualities the art world would have expected to see in a portrait of one's mother. In an article published May 22, 1878, in the London society paper The World, Whistler defended his painting. He wrote: "Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an 'Arrangement in Grey and Black.' Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?"

Whistler also broke with artistic convention by titling his paintings "symphonies," "nocturnes" and "arrangements," because he associated his paintings with the evocative nature of music. In the article cited above, he wrote: "Art should be independent of all clap-trap -- 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. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works 'arrangements' and 'harmonies.'

Two of Whistler's paintings that were very controversial when first shown are also in the exhibition: Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, and the DIA's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. The latter, a night scene of fireworks over London's Cremorne Gardens, was cause for the most famous lawsuit in the art world. The influential British critic John Ruskin described this work as a "pot of paint" flung in the public's face, and Whistler sued him for libel. The Falling Rocket conveyed Whistler's impression of the brilliant fireworks in the night sky and was never intended to be a realistic depiction of the scene. Rather, it was a product of Whistler's philosophy of making art for art's sake. At the trial, Whistler said this painting was never meant to be "the portrait of a particular place, but only an artistic impression." He won the lawsuit, but was awarded only one farthing, which is equal to a few pennies. However, the trial gave Whistler the opportunity to expound on his aesthetic philosophy, and in subsequent years The Falling Rocket was lauded by critic Gustav Kobbé as "an epoch-making picture" that marked "the decline of an arrogant school of criticism, and the beginning of Whistler's influence on modern art." ( right: James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875, oil on panel. The Detroit Institute of Arts.)

The exhibition visibly shows how American artists embraced Whistler's revolutionary style and welcomed his modern aesthetic. His influence is evident in paintings such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler by William Merritt Chase, The Spanish Dancer by John Singer Sargent, and Portrait of the Artist's Mother by Henry Ossawa Tanner, as well as in works by other artists in the show.

James W. Tottis, DIA acting curator of American art and exhibition curator, notes the importance of Whistler's influence on his contemporaries. "Many people don't realize how inventive Whistler's style was, and how widely it was imitated by well-known American artists of his time. By interspersing Whistler's paintings with those of his followers, the exhibition will show visitors how the elements that are so identified with Whistler were copied by many respected American artists."


James McNeill Whistler - A Brief Overview


James McNeill Whistler (1834­903) is one of the most important figures in the history of American art, renowned both for his revolutionary style and his eccentric personality. In his time, Whistler became as well known for his innovative ideas about art as he was for his letter-writing campaigns, lawsuits and verbal barbs against critics, dealers and other artists who misunderstood his work. ( right: James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)


The Early Years

Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the son of West Point graduate and civil engineer Major George Washington Whistler and his second wife, Anna Matilda McNeill. When Whistler was nine-years-old, his family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father served as an engineer. While in Russia, the young Whistler studied drawing at the Imperial Academy of Science and announced his intention to become an artist. He also fell in love with European culture and was not happy when his family moved back to the United States.

After his father's death in 1849, Whistler, with his family, returned to the U.S. He enrolled in the Military Academy at West Point in 1851, where he excelled in a drawing class but was dismissed from the academy in 1854 for "deficiency in chemistry." He worked briefly at the Winans Locomotive Works in Baltimore and the drawings division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, but was not satisfied at either job. He left the United States at age 21 to study and work in Paris and London, and never returned.


Whistler the Artist

Whistler's attitude toward painting and his challenging ideas often baffled the European art establishment while inspiring American artists. He rejected the artistic standards of the day, which dictated that paintings portray subjects realistically, and that they tell a story, communicate moral values or focus on biblical or mythological themes. Whistler considered subject matter and photograph-like depictions less important than creating harmonies of color and composition. He created art for art's sake, organizing color and line into a work that was aesthetically beautiful. He also wanted his paintings to convey a mood and an atmosphere, choosing to associate them with the evocative nature of music by titling them "symphonies," "nocturnes" and "arrangements."

Whistler's personality was as remarkable as his artistic abilities. He was flamboyant, often strutting around Paris wearing a straw hat, white suit, polished black patent leather shoes and a monocle. Writers of his day referred to him as a "dandy." At the same time, he was variously described as egotistical, arrogant, outrageous, abrasive and self-promoting. He never backed down from defending himself and was convinced that those who found fault with his art simply did not understand it.

Whistler defended his reputation in court by suing art critic John Ruskin over his scathing denouncement of the painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Ruskin wrote that he never expected "a coxcomb to ask 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler won the lawsuit, but was awarded only one farthing. Even though Whistler was bankrupted by the costs of the trial, he considered it a successful defense of his honor. Ruskin was infuriated by what he considered Whistler's moral victory and ended up resigning his professorship at Oxford, believing the British justice system had denied his right to criticize art.


Whistler's Legacy

Many American artists were intrigued by Whistler's "modern" style, and imitated his approach to color and composition. John Singer Sargent's The Spanish Dance invites comparison to Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. The color scheme is black and gray, and fireworks are suggested against a black sky. In Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Henry Ossawa Tanner was clearly influenced by Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, posing his mother sitting in a chair, facing left, with dark draperies in the background and a simple color palette. Many other artists, such as Albert Herter, adopted this sideways posing of portrait subjects, as well as Whistler's use of white-on-white, both evident in Herter's Portrait of Bessie.

Whistler was active until shortly before his death from heart disease in 1903. Even after he died, his status in the art world was not definitive. The excerpts below from a New York Times obituary dated July 18, 1903, state it best:

"This morning's papers publish elaborate obituary notices, recognizing the distinguished and unique personality of Whistler, whose genius greatly dominated European art of the present generation. While admitting that it is a question for posterity to decide his exact position as a painter, it is generally conceded that he was a consummate etcher.
The Daily Chronicle says:
'It is mortifying to think that there is no example of his work in the public galleries of London, where he lived and worked for so many years.
It is twenty-five years since the famous case, "Whistler versus Ruskin," was tried. In the history of art it might be two hundred years, so completely has the point of view of the critics and the public changed, so completely has the brilliant genius of the man whom Ruskin called a "coxcomb" been vindicated.
And yet, even now, there are no standards by which one can judge his work, by which one can form an estimate of his true place in the ranks of the world's great artists. That he is among them is not doubted; just how high up among them is not so clear. It is only once or twice in a century that the originator of a new style in art or literature appears, and it takes at least a century for the world to recover from the dazed condition into which it is thrown by such a man's work.'"

Organizer and Sponsor

This exhibition was organized as After Whistler: The Artist and His Influence on American Painting by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta with generous support provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In Detroit, the exhibition is supported by Comerica Charitable Foundation, Kenwal Steel Corp., the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and the City of Detroit.


New book titled Whistler and His Mother, An Unexpected Relationship: Secrets of an American Masterpiece

An illustrated 242-page book by Sarah Walden entitled Whistler and His Mother, An Unexpected Relationship: Secrets of an American Masterpiece was published in December 2003 by the University of Nebraska Press to coincide with the exhibition American Attitude: Whistler and His Followers.

The University of Nebraska Press says of the book:

James McNeill Whistler painted his mother on impulse, when she came to London to escape the American Civil War, forcing him to evict his mistress from his house. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between Whistler's outrageously flamboyant life in London -- where he famously befriended Oscar Wilde and Dante Gabriel Rossetti -- and the subdued, touchingly melancholic depiction of his Puritan mother he entitled "Arrangement in Grey and Black." This portrait has become one of the world's best-known paintings and an American icon, yet we know remarkably little about it.
While restoring the painting for the Louvre, Sarah Walden became intrigued by the extraordinary and complex history of the painting, which had never been fully explored. From French, British, and American sources, Walden uncovers the intersections between Whistler's flawed genius, his struggle for recognition, his troubled relationship with his mother and mistresses, and the unprecedented historical response to his greatest work. Walden's findings read like a detective story, and her controversial and progressive views on art restoration combine with biography and criticism to create a gripping narrative that skillfully weaves history and aesthetics into a seamless tapestry.
One of the world's leading restorers of old master paintings, Sarah Walden is also an outspoken critic of restoration work. Walden's provocative view of restoration (for which she received the support of eminent art historian Ernst Gombrich) is that it is more than a technical job, but involves an aesthetic and historical approach. This perspective is one of the strands which leads her to discover new links with contemporary painters. She studied art history and restoration at the Courtauld Institute and has restored works by Titian, Degas, Watteau, Poussin, Cezanne and many other famous painters. Walden currently works for museums such as the Louvre and auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's.


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