New York

Whistler and His World

Wildenstein and Co.

The show, “Whistler and his World,” is an inconclusive one, as it would have had to be. In the whole of art history there cannot have been a more complex period than the last third of the 19th century, principally because, as I have tried to suggest several times before, the revivalism and historical syncretism that had taken on such a central function in both style and subject matter in the later 18th century, and had never really died out, even in important painting, resurfaced in even more virulent form in the later 19th century. And because it is characteristic of an historicist approach not to discard anything, all the 19th-century styles and motifs were added to the repertory of earlier ones, which, into the bargain, were far better known than they had been a hundred years before, since historicism involves the study as well as the use of the past. Whistler was at the center of all this: his “world” was the art world, more certainly than was any artist’s, at least since the time of Raphael.

In these circumstances, what to say about the show? That it was good as well as interesting, but that it made the mistake of trying to be too representative, too characteristic. Certainly, even those who are familiar with the period will have found in the show things they had not known, or hadn’t known well, or things they knew but hadn’t really thought about before. To some, Orchardson, Inchbold or Grimshaw would have been new; to most, I imagine that Armstrong or Menpes would have been. But, to be honest, I think that these are not enough, in such a large exhibition of such a rich period; and above all, that many of the artists are not represented by as pointed examples as they might have been. What is to be learned, at this stage of the game, from seeing La Farge’s Portrait of the Artist, Fantin’s Two Sisters, Tissot’s Passing Storm, and dozens of others—in fact, most of the things that were in the show. Instead of opening up new areas, the show confines itself too often to summing up what is already known. Or to put it differently—causally, I suspect—the show could not make up its mind whether to be an instrument of instruction and research (it was prepared by a group of graduate students at Columbia University and selected partly by some of them and their teachers), or just a gathering of nice things addressed to a public of gens bien (it was a benefit show at Wilden-stein, and perhaps an unusually expensive one to get into, even at today’s prices). Whatever the case, I think that much of what the selections in the show demonstrated should have been supposed to be already known and that the choices should have been much more imaginative.

Anyway, there is one point, and an important one, that the show brings out very well, and I want to call attention to it, since what is involved is really a reversal of basic attitudes that have been prevalent, at least until recently. To make the general point by way of a specific example, the show (and the catalog) demonstrate the indebtedness to the Pre-Raphaelites of an artist who is usually thought to derive in all essentials from painters like Degas. So the question is whether Whistler’s French sources, so far as these are his sources, are not themselves indebted to, or at least paralleled by, the Pre-Raphaelites. Perhaps the French avant-garde is less original than is supposed and the Pre-Raphaelites much more seminal in the development of European modernism. After all, since “modern” art first began to be seriously studied, it has been assumed that the major and the initial developments were all and always to be found in the avant-garde and in France; but, as this show brings out, the artists of the French avant-garde were extremely attentive to what English “academic” artists were doing. That’s important.

Also, it leads one to question the validity of the distinction between the avant-garde and the academy, a distinction that I believe was from the start misleading and is no longer useful, and, in this context, to consider again what it might have meant to be an American expatriate, however complete one’s expatriation. The fact is that the condition of being expatriates enabled these American artists to be much more eclectic than others, and this is why it happened that among such artists as Duveneck and Chase, Sargent and Whistler, a kind of academic avant-garde or progressive academy bore its finest fruits—not necessarily its most exotic or most interesting ones, but the most perfectly formed. In many cases, it was that the Americans came to developments last and were often exposed to them, as it were, at one remove, and so found more to choose from, being less committed to any single thing. This was not Whistler’s case, of course, but another element in the expatriate’s condition was: for the Americans the European experience could be more total than for anyone else, even for the Europeans, because inevitably that experience involved for them a high degree of self-consciousness, of awareness of one’s reactions in order to decide one’s actions. And this is what historicism is, if you transpose this condition to the plane of style. Whistler’s world was the world of Elizabeth Boott Duveneck and her friend, Henry James, and of so many others, the experience not just of European art but of Europe. These Americans came upon Europe after it had all happened, and it is because European ways of thinking and of living were always a bit external to them, always so much to be acquired, that the Americans could be as interested in as many different kinds of thing as they were. For the Americans, even European actuality was viewed as history, even the most recent actuality was what really had happened (past tense) and what they and their native country lacked (now).

In the end these are important enough issues to be raised by a show, which might more pointedly have been called “Whistler at the Crossroads,” or something like that, since that is where he was all the time.

Jerrold Lanes