An unfussy, thoroughgoing look at a multifaceted, restless genius.
Civil War historian Sutherland (History/Univ. of Arkansas; A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War, 2009, etc.) does not pass judgment too harshly on the brilliant, controversial and litigious American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), who fought to refashion art criticism from the artist’s point of view. The author clearly brings out Whistler’s uniqueness in terms of his technique; he was both a kind of naturalist and a trailblazing user of etching and pastels. The eldest of a large family, born in Lowell, Mass., Whistler spent a formative six years in St. Petersburg, Russia, when his engineer father was hired by the czar to help build the railroad; learning French turned out to be an important asset for Whistler when he began to pursue his career as an artist in Paris. Intractable and headstrong, winning and personable, he was bounced out of his father’s alma mater, West Point, and was finally able to play at being the young bohemian in Paris. With his practiced drawing talent and curiosity, he absorbed the styles of the masters around him, from classicism to realism to naturalism to photography. He began to hone his own style—e.g., in At the Piano and The White Girl, which was his “first tentative step away from narrative painting…one of the great artistic controversies of the century.” Indeed, in London, Whistler took his “art for art’s sake” credo to combative new heights by taking critic John Ruskin to task for disparaging his delicate, quick brush technique. While Whistler’s notoriety grew, the prices of his paintings did not, and he was often insolvent, self-promoting yet fiercely devoted to his craft. In this immensely readable work, Sutherland brings out how enormously influential Whistler became to younger artists, especially in Scotland.
A lively addition to the understanding of this difficult and important American artist.