- Historic Sites
To Henry James, as to his fellow expatriates Whistler and Sargent, the culture of the Old World was “vast, vague and dazzling,” yet they could never quite forget or abandon the New
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
Not that the city was an unmitigated joy to him. He called it a “great grey Babylon” and wrote to Alice that “the place sits on you, broods on you, stamps on you with the feet of its myriad bipeds and quadrupeds.” But he swiftly came to love its massiveness, its imperial tone, and above all its quality as an almost sacred city of culture, where civilization, in his opinion, had reached its highest level of development. To penetrate into the most secret precincts of the holy city—to let his imagination and intellect play over the rites, ceremonies, and displays it offered, to be a purposeful onlooker at the moral and social dramas enacted on its thousand stages—was what he had wanted and what he now robustly sought.
Whistler had come to London nearly twenty years before with somewhat the same expectations. As a painter he did not of course have James’s hunger for complex social experiences or his instinct for moral investigation, but for him too London was the center of the civilized world. He was to become deeply attached to it, though he was never assimilated or accepted by it to the degree that James was, or Sargent later on. For Whistler, with his startling appearance—the small slender form, a monocle screwed into his right eye, “a long fawn-colored frock-coat and pink or yellow ribbons as shoe laces in highly polished black slippers”—his irreverence, and most of all his disturbingly new kind of painting, was a shock to Victorian sensibilities, however much the age thought of itself as open to newness in art.
It was one thing to admire Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, but quite another to make room among the pieties and conventions of the day for Baudelaire, Swinburne—and Whistler—about whom there clung something unsavory, dangerous, and unsettling. Only a few strong patrons and critics were capable of open admiration, though Whistler could rely upon society at large for a certain interest, half-grudging, always imperceptive, and ever ready to turn against him.
Within the art world, by the same token, he was not likely to endear himself, considering the nearly closed corporation into which such English painters as Millais, Burne-Jones, and Watts constituted themselves, and considering too the sense Whistler had, and flaunted, of the superiority of his own work to anything then being done in London. He was rash enough to advise Rossetti to frame his sonnets and paint his poems, while a little drama Whistler enacted before one of the paintings in an Academy show at the National Gallery was the talk of the town for months.
The picture was by Frith, one of the most popular painters of the day, a master of realistic detail and anecdotal sentimentality. Adjusting his monocle, Whistler stared at the canvas while a crowd gathered expectantly around. “Amazing!” they heard him say. “This picture tells a story. See, the little girl has a pussy cat, the other little girl has a dog—and that little girl has broken a toy; there are real tears rolling down her cheeks. Amazing!” After which he let the monocle drop into his hand and sauntered away.
Yet Whistler did exert more than a negative influence on the period. He did a good deal of interior decorating, and his gift to London interiors, as his biographer Horace Gregory says, “was a rebirth of sunlight in hitherto cluttered and crowded rooms.” His painting, too advanced to win him honors, brought him instead the loyal following of a small group of artists who were to make up the next aesthetic generation. And his ideas, expressed in conversation, occasional writings, and most notably in the famous “Ten O’Clock Lecture” of 1885,* forced a reconsideration of attitudes toward art, especially those that insisted on its didactic or moral function.
Whistler’s career in England reached its crest by 1878, the year of the so-called Ruskin trial. John Ruskin was the most influential critic of the day, even though he had grown steadily more querulous and crackbrained as his schemes for social regeneration failed to take hold. Whistler had long seemed to him the epitome of decadence, and his irritation at the shockingly outspoken and iconoclastic American finally boiled over in these lines, which Ruskin published in the newspaper he owned: “I have seen and heard much of cockney impudence before now, but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler ill-advisedly brought suit for libel. As it turned out, he won the case, the honest English burghers on the jury agreeing that he was a serious and hard-working, if incomprehensible, artist. But the expenses of the trial forced him into bankruptcy (his improvidence had always been legendary), and he also suffered the peculiarly Victorian stigma of having, for whatever reason, had his name associated with unpleasant things like judges, juries, and bailiffs. As a result his reputation declined among the classes that could have supported his work, thus weakening his never very strong sense of self-assurance.