Whistler: mother’s boy
In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley considers the artist James McNeill Whistler
01 May, 2020 — By Neil Titley
Whistler’s famous painting of his mother
DRINKERS at the Spaniards Inn by Kenwood House can hardly fail to be aware of such renowned predecessors as the highwayman Dick Turpin. But it is not so well known that their next door neighbour for a short while was the American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).
During the early months of 1896, he lodged at the immediately adjacent Heath End House while nursing his sick wife Trixie. Whistler was not impressed by the surroundings declaring that it was “like living on top of a landscape”. When Trixie died there, he was so stricken with grief that he burst out the house and raced wildly across the Heath.
Although a short man, with his carefully curled black hair, his monocle, and his cane “the size of a darning needle”, Whistler was a striking dandy. He was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA, and spent some of his childhood in St Petersburg, Russia, where his father worked as a railway engineer. Returning to America, he attended the military academy of West Point, but in 1854 was expelled for failing his chemistry exam – “If silicon had been a gas, I would be a major-general.”
Instead he determined to become an artist. Moving to Paris, he initially survived on portraiture. One such commission was to paint a life-size nude study of the French actress, Cleo de Merode. Cleo arrived with her mother as chaperone and, wearing only a headband, draped herself on a sofa. Whistler was not happy that the headband concealed her ears and stepped forward to rearrange it. Her mother rose with a squawk of indignation:
“Oh, no, no, monsieur! Cleo’s ears are for her husband alone!”
Best known for his portrait of his mother, Whistler considered that art, rather than literally representing the world, should be concerned with arranging colours in harmony. He began to see painting in musical terms and after his arrival in London some of his finest work represented the River Thames – he called these pictures “nocturnes”.
Self-portrait by James MacNeill Whistler
He was well aware of his own talent and rarely missed an opportunity to emphasise it. An admirer said that he only recognised two painters in the world: “Yourself and Velasquez.” Whistler replied with a haughty stare: “Why bring in Velasquez?”
His mastery of interior decorative art was displayed in his superb Harmony in Blue and Gold: the Peacock Room. However, occasionally Homer nodded as when the actress Lillie Langtry asked him, together with Oscar Wilde and the artist Frank Miles, to design her new home. Lillie abandoned the project after she found that the triumvirate, in spite of a flood of brilliant artistic flourishes, had forgotten to leave room for a staircase.
Although a central figure in London society, people soon began to notice another facet of his personality – that of extreme pugnacity. As he said: “My nature needs enemies.” For whatever reason, Whistler could not resist a fight.
On successive occasions he knocked his brother-in-law through the plate-glass window of a Parisian café, punched the Slade artist Alphonse Legros to the floor of his studio and, during an argument with his fellow artist Stott of Oldham at the Hogarth Club, slapped Stott’s face. In Whistler’s own words: “I am grieved to add that the first slap was followed by a second one, and the incident closed by a kick upon a part of Mr Stott of Oldham’s body that finally turned towards me, and that I leave to specify.”
When he heard that Stott had died at sea, Whistler grunted: “So he died at sea, did he? Just where he always was.”
With age his capacity for physical attack dwindled and instead he channelled his aggression into litigation. He famously brought an action against the critic John Ruskin who had stated that he had “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler was awarded one farthing in damages but was ruined by the court costs.
He lived in various parts of London – for a time renting a studio at No 8 Fitzroy Street in Camden – but especially in Chelsea where he was a founder member and ubiquitous wit at the Chelsea Arts Club. One day he noticed a fellow member, one who reputedly had attempted to seduce a servant girl, entering the premises leaning on a stick. Whistler commented: “Housemaid’s knee, I presume?”
He prided himself on his knowledge of the French language but came to grief when he insisted on ordering a meal at a fashionable Parisian restaurant. His companion tried to intervene, but Whistler snapped: “I am quite capable of ordering a meal in French without your assistance!”
The friend replied: “Of course you are. But I just distinctly heard you ordering a flight of stairs.”
Following his death in London he was buried in Chiswick Old Cemetery. In 2005 a statue to his memory was erected at the north end of Battersea Bridge on the Thames.
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For information go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk