A Tale of Two Whistlers: The Private Life of a Celebrity Artist

“I first met James Whistler when I was twelve and he had been dead for fifty-five years,” writes Daniel E. Sutherland in his new biography of the 19th century American artist. Sutherland was in grammar school, on a field trip with his classmates to the Detroit Institute of Arts, when he saw a self-portrait of Whistler hanging next to his most notorious painting, “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.”

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Daniel E. Sutherland, Distinguished Professor of history.

“The memory of that encounter has stayed with me, and now, with the passing of nearly another fifty-five years, it is my reason for telling his story.”

And so Sutherland begins Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake, the exhaustively researched biography that ruminates on the nature of the two sides of Whistler.

“There were two different Whistlers,” Sutherland said. “His public persona, which is something he encouraged and nourished himself, is of this carefree bon vivant who is more concerned with celebrity and entertaining people and making people laugh, as opposed to a serious artist, which he really was. This was a man who was driven. He was insecure at heart, and the insecurity came from this drive for perfection.”

There have been nearly 20 biographies of Whistler since he died in 1903. Sutherland’s is the first to make extensive use of his private correspondence.

“I’m not an art historian, so I looked at his life holistically,” Sutherland said. “I think others recognized there was a difference between his public and private lives, but because they never went into deeply his private correspondence, they never understood the way in which it really affected how he viewed art and the world.”

In past biographies, Whistler has been remembered as a combative, eccentric, unrelenting publicity seeker. All of that was true, Sutherland said, but these qualities obscured what was underneath: a master who “was a very great artist, arguably the greatest of his generation, and a pivotal figure in the cultural history of the 19th century.”

Whistler was born in Massachusetts in 1834, followed his father as a cadet at West Point and failed out of the academy at age 19. He moved to Paris and embarked on a career as an artist. In 1871, he finished Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, known colloquially as “Whistler’s Mother,” one of the most recognizable portraits in the Western world. Whistler produced 2,700 paintings, drawings, etchings and lithographs and became famous for producing inventive, non-traditional works of art.

“Whistler had a reputation as a ‘painter’s painter,’ someone who only another painter really understood,” Sutherland said. “Other artists understood him and sympathized. He would destroy paintings for which people would have paid him a lot of money, because they didn’t match his image of what he was trying to do. In his ‘painter’s eye,’ he had a vision. He would demand 50 or 60 sittings for portraits. He would start, and the sitter would come back the next day and see that the canvas was blank again.”

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