Wandering through the echoing halls of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, one discovers a small room in stark contrast to its majestic marble halls. This elegant artifact, removed intact from a wealthy Londoner’s mansion in 1908, could not be more surprising. From shutters to ceiling, the whole space is given over to the glorious notion that it is inhabited by peacocks. The banks of shelves display blue and white Oriental chin, golden peacocks with their wings magnificently unfurled do battle in showers of coppery feathers, tiny gold coins are flung about everywhere, and the effect is of somehow having walked into a lacquered Japanese box. In the center of this glorious confection is a handsome portrait of a girl, splendidly attired in a Japanese robe and with a golden screen behind her. She is a “Princess in the Land of Porcelain.”
The room is a testament to the artistic gifts of its maker, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who also painted the portrait on view. This major 19th-century figure is getting his first biography in a quarter-century, written by University of Arkansas history professor Daniel E. Sutherland. Like many other artists whose work has gone out of vogue, Whistler is so out of fashion that he has practically disappeared. This is odd, because in the race to exhibit work the general public can readily appreciate, Whistler would win hands down. His work is always accessible, at the same time original and, as the Peacock Room demonstrates, sometimes unsettling, even strange, but always full of visual delights.
Whistler’s background is as idiosyncratic as his art. He was born in 1834 in the mill town of Lowell, Mass., to a mother from a North Carolina family of physicians and planters and an engineering father with a military background. James (called Jemie) was the oldest of five. Because his father, an expert on railroads, was in demand, the family moved constantly, from the United States to England and then Russia. By the time Jemie was 17, he had lived in nine different houses. International travel made him fluent in French and German as well as precociously sophisticated and self-assured. He enrolled in West Point but never graduated. His parents, recognizing his gifts, enrolled him in art school and, when he was in his 20s, sent him to Paris to study with Charles Gleyre.
Whistler was slightly built and short, and his health was always fragile, physical handicaps that he compensated for by a hot-headed willingness to tackle anyone in a brawl, not all of which he lost. He had a delightful manner, was generous, hospitable and impulsive. Sutherland writes, “He was so well read, cosmopolitan and quick-witted that he could contribute a wealth of stories and informed observations to any conversation.” He was, it was said, “alive to the finger tips.”
In Paris, he met and made friends with Courbet, Fantin-Latour, Monet, Manet and other Impressionists. In London he mingled with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as well as the poets Swinburne and Wilde and the novelist and critic George Moore. He was so clever, so amusing, went to all the right parties and entertained lavishly in turn — he was usually broke. He talked about the most important thing, which was Art for Art’s Sake. By that he meant that art should not tell a story, or merely represent nature, but exist for its own sake as an arrangement of forms and colors.
To that end Whistler painted a series of “Nocturnes,” notably of the Thames by night, Cremorne Gardens, Trafalgar Square and other familiar London scenes, in such shadowy shapes and ghostly effects that his first impulse was to call them “Moonlights.” This was in homage to Joseph M.W. Turner, who pioneered such effects for his own night views of the river decades before.
Whistler extended the idea of delicate harmonies in his profile portrait of his mother, calling it “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” (now in the Musee d’Orsay), and his study of a red-headed girl in white against a white ground (at the National Gallery), which he termed a “Symphony in White, No. l.” Given Whistler’s extroverted, almost brash, nature, it is interesting that his paintings and accomplished lithographs show such a delicate, almost evanescent touch, a contradiction his biographer might have explored.
He did not fare well on the matter of the Peacock Room. He had been commissioned, during the absence of the home’s owner, to do some minor work on refurbishment. Whistler adroitly turned the modest request into a wholesale renovation of the dining room, asked for a tremendous fee and, in the owner’s absence, opened the dining room to the public for an admission fee.
He was quite in the wrong, of course, and unrepentant. Given the circumstances, it is surprising that the owner did not tear the room apart, or him. The fact that the room has survived two or three moves since it was bought by Charles Lang Freer in 1908 is another minor miracle. Now it has been refurbished yet again and is in sparkling condition. One might meditate there on the folly of artists in particular and art in general. Or one can be grateful this particular piece of Whistler’s art still exists, and give thanks to the mercurial, brilliant and forgotten man behind it.
Secrest is a former writer and editor for The Post’s Style section and the author of many arts biographies. Her new book, on Elsa Schiaparelli, will be published in October.
By Daniel E. Sutherland
Yale Univ. 440 pp. $40