Mr. Berkman, a foreign correspondent-film scenarist, is here with the first and the most of two biographical novels this season about Whistler (one will have more cheerful aplomb via an autobiographical first person -- Lawrence Williams' I, James McNeil Whistler to appear in April) but this is not to Slight the solid if at times commonplace worth of Berkman's. Whistler whose memory will always be hyphenated with Mother grew up under the sobriety and severity of her influence which he would later describe as ""grace wedded to dignity, strength enhancing sweetness."" After his expulsion from West Point, after his apprentice years in Paris with Degas, Courbet, Fantin-Latour, Whistler went to England where he had the most passionate liaison of his life with Jo Heffernan, a bargeman's daughter, which would be interrupted by the arrival of his mother. Jo prompted his first breakthrough-breakaway canvas in white and everyone knows about that ""Arrangement in Grey and Black."" Time passes; the quarrel with the imperious Ruskin extends into an expensive libel suit; there are further financial reverses and reprisals; the chafing eccentric behind the monocle is interpreted variously -- puckish, contentious, insecure and ""taut with vanity""; the last years following the death of his late acquired wife are lonely ones. This is roughly in the class of Irving Stone (not as didactically cloddish) and Stephen Longstreet (not as deliberately lurid) but still a popular work with none of the sensitivity which would justify the tenet of the transposition of art.