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Whistler: Masterpieces in Colour Series

Art > General

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by T. Martin Wood

I

At the time when Rossetti and his circle were foregathering chiefly at Rossetti’s house, quiet Chelsea scarcely knew how daily were associations added which will always cluster round her name. Whistler’s share in those associations is very large, and he has left in his paintings the memory of many a night, as he returned beside the river. Before Whistler painted it, night was more opaque than it is now. It had been viewed only through the window of tradition. It was left for a man of the world coming out of an artificial London room to paint its stillness, and also to show us that we ourselves had made night more beautiful, with ghostly silver and gold; and to tell us that the dark bridges that sweep into it do not interrupt—that we cannot interrupt, the music of nature.

The figure of Whistler emerges: with his extreme concern as to his appearance, his careful choice of clothes, his hair so carefully arranged. He had quite made up his mind as to the part he intended to play and the light in which he wished to be regarded. He had a dual personality. Himself as he really was and the personality which he put forward as himself. In a sense he never went anywhere unaccompanied; he was followed and watched by another self that would perhaps have been happier at home. Tiring of this he would disappear from society for a time. Other men’s ringlets fall into their places accidentally—so it might be with the young Disraeli. Other men’s clothes have seemed characteristic without any of this elaborate pose. He chose his clothes with a view to their being characteristic, which is rather different and less interesting than the fact of their becoming so because he, Whistler, wore them. Other men are dandies, with little conception of the grace of their part; with Whistler a supreme artist stepped into the question. He designed himself. Nor had he the illusions of vanity, but a groundwork of philosophy upon which every detail of his personal life was part of an elaborate and delicately designed structure, his art the turret of it all, from which he saw over the heads of others. There is no contradiction between the dandy and his splendid art. He lived as exquisitely and carefully as he painted. Literary culture, merely, in his case was not great perhaps, yet he could be called one of the most cultured figures of his time. In every direction he marked the path of his mind with fastidious borders. And it is interesting that he should have painted the greatest portrait of Carlyle, who, we will say, represented in English literature Goethe’s philosophy of culture, which if it has an echo in the plastic arts, has it in the work of Whistler.


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