WHISTLER by Gordon Fleming


A Life
Age Range: 1834 - 1903
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 Large hats, monocle, cane, raucous laugh; eccentric, volatile, clever enough to be plagiarized by Oscar Wilde, arrogant enough to challenge John Ruskin's qualifications as an art critic: Whistler (1834-1903) was the stuff of tabloids. Fleming (English/Louisiana State; Murderers' Row, 1985, etc.) represents his life that way: gossip, repartee, names, cliques, quarrels, involvements--the portrait of an artist without an inner life. Born in America, raised in St. Petersburg, educated at West Point, Whistler's vivid life style and generosity earned him the title ``King of Bohemia'' while he studied in the conservative ateliers of Paris. Seeking more artistic independence, he moved to London, where he exhibited his paintings and drew critical scorn and parodies for their affectation and peculiar subject-matter. He lived with a series of lower-class women, fathered several illegitimate children, only one of whom he provided for (Fleming: ``the portraits and nocturnes may be worth a few neglected children''). Mostly, he was known for his temper, on which he often acted, punching a black man because of his color, knocking his brother-in-law through a plate-glass window in Paris--according to Fleming, using his fists as others used drink and drugs, as a release of tension. In his later years, he quarreled in print, sued anyone who disagreed with him, and courted publicity of any sort. Fleming says that he has no thesis, merely wanting to create an ``accurate portrait''--which may account for the lack of analysis, interpretation, and context, his separating the life from the works and the works from the artistic, economic, political, and social environment in which Whistler functioned. But given Whistler's curious behavior, and, as a painter, the many clues he gave to understanding it, there seems little excuse for not dealing with his psychology. Whistler himself claimed that a portrait is a solution to a problem; this one remains unresolved.

Pub Date: July 22nd, 1991
ISBN: 0-312-05995-7
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1991


NonfictionWHISTLER by Daniel E. Sutherland
by Daniel E. Sutherland