James McNeill Whistler rose like a rocket on the art scene in the Victorian Age and plummeted almost as quickly due to his incendiary personality. Whistler, who was born on July 14, 1834, drew the ire of art critic John Ruskin with his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (above), which Ruskin called a fraud and a “flinging [of] a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Few artists have captured the fleeting effects of fireworks as well as Whistler, the painter of the ephemeral, the fleeting, and the delicate—he even signed many of his paintings with a stylized butterfly of his own design, his personal emblem.
Whistler’s momentary effects captured in paint aspired to the condition of music. Many of his titles borrow musical terms to relate his subtle effects, such as his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket and Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (above). As the symphonist turns a theme over and over, examining it from ever angle and documenting every nuance, Whistler delves into the color white and turns it inside out in search of the essence of whiteness. (When I saw this painting in person, I was stunned by the beautiful subtlety, as well as by the bravura animal head of the rug, baring its fangs at the woman’s feet.) Only John Singer Sargent, who was influenced by Whistler, “knows” white as intimately. Whistler knew the model in the painting, Joanna Hiffernan, intimately, too. Unfortunately, Gustave Courbet may have used her as the model for his The Origin of the World (no direct link; I have a G rating to protect), perhaps the most “intimate” nude ever, which led to a falling out between Whistler and Courbet.
Whistler titled his 1890 memoir The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. He wasn’t kidding. Whistler created a vibrant persona to match his vibrant art. In Europe, he affected the manners of a Southern gentleman down on his luck. In America, he assumed the guise of a cosmopolitan European—a dandy always ready with a cutting quip. (See Randall C. Griffin’s Homer, Eakins, and Anschutz: The Search for American Identity in the Gilded Age for a great discussion of Whistler’s persona in context.) Despite being born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Whistler claimed during the libel trial with Ruskin over Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket that he was born in Russia. “I shall be born when and where I want,” Whistler declared, “and I do not choose to be born in Lowell.” Whistler’s strident forging of personality often conflicted with many who once were friends. Oscar Wilde, Whistler’s fellow dandy and quipster, saw his friendship with Whistler end when Wilde declared his homosexuality publicly in 1895. Whistler sued Walter Sickert, a former follower. But the greatest conflict came with Ruskin, whom Whistler took to trial in 1878. Whistler won, but only a token settlement of a single farthing. Whistler remains a strange contradictory figure: a painter of beauty and gentle subtlety who could inspire the deepest personal animosity.
[This belated birthday to Whistler is brought to you courtesy of the technical difficulties I experienced a while back.]