The Phillips Collection
At the Phillips Collection, Whistler's 'Miss Lillian Woakes' (and its frame)
Friday, January 1, 2010
Fourth of five articles in which the Post's art critic chooses a single detail from a single painting to dwell on.
In the later 19th century, the expatriate American James McNeill Whistler was one of the world's most inventive and influential artists. This isn't quite clear in the Whistler painting that hangs at the Phillips. That little canvas, titled "Miss Lillian Woakes," shows him at one of his more safely tasteful moments, in 1891, when success had possibly made him complacent. That's why, on my latest Phillips visit, I didn't spend my time looking at Whistler's canvas. I spent it on the frame the artist put around it -- "as important a part as any of the rest of the work," he once insisted. If Whistler was a major player in the birth of modern art, he was a giant in the world of modern frames. To get at the most significant detail in this art object, your eyes have to take in more rather than less.
In place of the elaborate curlicues that polluted framing in Whistler's time -- that still pollute most museum frames, including many at the Phillips -- the "reed moldings" surrounding the Phillips portrait are bold and crisp and stripped down. In this classic "Whistler frame" (the artist gave his name to an entire genre) a relentless swell of gilded wood repeats from the far outer edge to almost where molding meets canvas.
There's a positive reading of this: You can imagine the frame pulling outward from the center, like rays spreading wide from a light. Whistler's moldings want to help the meek Miss Lillian open out into a world beyond the edges of her painted field. Take that reading of this frame, and you can almost see her eyes opening wider, her mouth spreading into an expansive smile.
But you're more likely to read the artist's golden ripples as rushing toward their center and pushing in on this poor girl. It's as though the bullish male painter were wrapping his neurasthenic sitter in a bear hug. The identifiable "Whistlerism" of this art comes more from those rippling moldings than from the somewhat bland portrait they frame. Even a much bolder painting might find itself Whistlerized by this frame's embrace.
Rather than framing an opening through which we glimpse a world beyond -- a world that might be more important than the picture that shows it -- these bold moldings make it clear that art is above all a precious treasure created by a maker. The frame's visual weight and authority turn a minor society portrait into a golden object that you have to reckon with.
And that object is distinctly modern, almost industrial, with an insistent linearity you don't often find in nature. Though Whistler's paintings, full of mists and glints from the natural world, can seem resistant to modernity or mechanization, his frame looks more like extruded metal than like anything organic. It's closer to Machine Age art deco than to the soft touches of impressionism.
Whistler's art is famous for its delicate nocturne effects, and Miss Woakes's wan, soft-focus face, on its darkly atmospheric background, fits that standard account. And then her night scene is blown away by a frame that's like a shaft of light. This frame isn't meant to meekly serve its painting's independent aims as art. It comes closer to usurping them.