Whistler's Nature at the Fitzwilliam Museum
To be honest with you, I dutifully check different websites for exhibitions and art events frequently, at least once per week. I update my calendar. I mark the date in my notebook. And guess what? Still, some of the important events naughtily slip through my eyes.
I haven’t read online that ‘Whistler & Nature’ exhibition is coming to The Fitzwilliam Museum this winter. I accidentally passed by the poster with dark green – black ‘Nocturne’ (1875 – 1877) by Whistler. Lucky me.
I remember reading a peculiar description of Whistler in ‘the Story of Art’ by E. Gombrich. It goes as follow:
In 1877 Whistler exhibited night-pieces in the Japanese manner which he called Nocturnes, asking 200 guineas for each. John Ruskin, the great art critic, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist, wrote: ‘I have never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ Whistler sued him for libel, and the case once more brought out the deep cleavage that separated the public’s point of view from that of the artist. The question of ‘finish’ was promptly trotted out, and Whistler was cross-examined as to whether he really asked that enormous sum ‘for two days’ work’, to which he replied: ‘No, I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.’
That is a character! I could easily imagine this situation. For Ruskin, an expression of the artist’s whole moral outlook mattered most, above any display of skills. It is no surprise that Edward Burne-Jones joined his side in the trial as a witness. And Whistler was already known for his provocative manner and ‘the gentle art of making enemies’, his dandyish appearance with white feather in his hair and hosted Sunday breakfasts with exotic menus. ‘An artist is not paid for his labour but for his vision.’ – is another quote attributed to Whistler, suggesting a modern and self-confident vision of the artist who became a leading figure in the so-called ‘aesthetic movement’, an apostle of Art for Art’s sake. Coming back to the Ruskin accusations, 200 guineas at that time might have worth of 20,000 pounds today.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American artist primarily based in the United Kingdom. He came from a family with an engineering background, and it looked that his career might follow the same path. He was trained as a geological surveyor and map-maker at West Point; later worked to map the entire U.S. coast for military and maritime purposes. His etching of Anacapa Island (1845) from that time opens the exhibition. His career lasted only two months, but he left with valuable knowledge of technical drawing and etching; and he was convinced that art would be his future.
That future can be seen in the exhibition. From etched urban landscapes with rivers, bridges, barges, warehouses to lithographs of gardens I could see his dedication towards capturing the moment in his works.
He was deeply inspired by Japanese art. At first, his Japonisme amounted to a little more than the use of Japanese motifs, but later he begun to immerse himself in Oriental art and was trying to absorb creatively into his own way. While Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses references Japanese style, complete assimilation was achieved in Nocturnes (in the show you can see only one), in which all explicit Oriental borrowings have been eliminated. Even more, the delicate adjustment of lines and intervals is combined with colours so that the painting becomes a translation into Western terms of Japanese art (H.Honour, J.Flemmimg, A World History of Art).
By the way, do you have a story about your signature? Do you remember the process of creating it? Did you code anything in it? Apparently, Whistler signed his works in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail to match his personal sharpness. Let me repeat the title of his book: “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”.
In addition to the current exhibition, The Fitzwilliam museum is about to open The Print Room holding an exhibition of the artist’s etchings, drypoints and lithographs focussing on people. The question is why the Curators of the exhibition dedicated to Nature included dancers, while the second exhibition is about to come expressing deeper interest in figures. Letters and pamphlets will be displayed there as well.
‘Whistler and Nature’ shows the urban vision of nature, his aesthetic impressions on the structures and mechanisms of economic productivity. With the extended part of works on people, The Fitzwilliam Museum will give a sense of the way the artist understood his surroundings.
- Whistler's etchings
- Whistler's prints in the Fitzwilliam Museum
- Artworks acquired by Tate
'whistler and nature'
The Fitzwilliam Museum
8 Jan - 17 Mar 2019
'the gentle art: friends and strangers in whistler’s prints'
The Fitzwilliam Museum
29 Jan - 19 May 2019