Whistler & His Followers

Hiroko Lancour

Though only 5'4" tall, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) was a giant in the art world. Whistler was an acclaimed etcher, a controversial painter, and an outspoken advocate of "art for art's sake." He stood up to his critics and refined "the gentle art of making enemies." Born in Massachusetts, Whistler spent several years of his childhood in St. Petersburg, Russia. After dropping out of West Point, he left the U.S. to study art in Paris and London. He continued to challenge the status quo of the Victorian art world. Whistler was, foremost, a quintessential American artist, though he never returned to his homeland, and died in London at age 69.

What did he paint? What was his style? How did he revolutionize the art world? What impact did he have on his contemporaries and artists of future generations? What is his legacy? With this exhibition, the DIA offers answers to all of these questions and more.

This exhibition was organized as After Whistler: The Artist and His Influence on American Painting by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. When it came to Detroit, however, it was re-titled more succinctly to American Attitude: Whistler & His Followers. As you might guess, "American Attitude" is the keynote of this show. Whistler and his style is the common thread linking the displayed artwork, consisting of 63 works (13 by Whistler and 50 by other American painters).

The DIA curatorial team did excellent work by preparing 6 galleries with unique themes and carefully chosen colors. The dimmer lighting reminds us of lamplights used in Whistler's time. Whistler was said to be the first to introduce white rooms and to do away with the elaborately patterned wallpapers, in favor of plain walls with different color schemes. He would no doubt have been pleased with this show's simple yet carefully planned setting.

The information posted in the galleries and anecdotal stories provided via the audio tour make the viewing experience all the more interesting. The DIA devotes an impressive amount of attention to even the smallest of details. For example, the shape of Whistler's famous butterfly insignia is painted on the gallery walls to denote Whistler's paintings. The color of the insignia changes from gallery to gallery based on the wall color, just like Whistler selected an emblem color that was in harmony with the painting. Another example of this attention to detail is the notations about the frames. The viewers are provided with ample information about the notable frames, such as those originally designed by the artists or others. The frame of Thomas Dewing's Portrait of a Lady Holding a Rose, 1912, designed by Stanford White, is one of the most beautiful gilded frames I've ever seen.

The first gallery's high ceiling and vast space are perfect for displaying full-length portraits. The three of Whistler's paintings that set the tone of this gallery are Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket, 1876, and Arrangement in Grey: Portrait of the Painter, ca. 1872. The White Girl inspired other artists to experiment with the same white-on-white color scheme. Many artists appropriated The Fur Jacket's low viewpoint, indistinct background, shallow picture space, somber palette, and distinct pose (the model's back facing the viewer). William Merritt Chase's portrait of Whistler, displayed right next to Whistler's self-portrait, makes the subject look taller because it was painted from a low vantage point. Whistler's Portrait of the Painter is in the permanent collection of the DIA.

The second gallery's theme is Whistler and the Art of Asia. The gallery's deep blue wall color is reminiscent of Whistler's famous Peacock Room. Whistler's fascination with the Oriental artifact is clear in his Purple and Rose: The Lange Lijzen of the Six Marks, 1864. Its gilded frame bears six Chinese characters and a small swirl pattern. Whistler and his contemporaries took special interest in exotic Chinese and Japanese art objects. Something Oriental is depicted in all of the paintings in this gallery, such as kimono, fan, screen, scroll, porcelain, stoneware, etc.

Whistler understood more than anyone else the artistic quality of Japanese prints. What he learned from Japanese art is evident in the works displayed in the subsequent galleries. The viewer will notice stylized simplification of nature, asymmetrical composition, and eloquence of economy, as a Zen master would put it, "to imply the whole hen by its tracks alone."

Whistler's Mother is the theme of Gallery 3, a room painted grey. Needless to say, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No.1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871, so-called Whistler's Mother, is one of the most famous American paintings. This is an opportunity not to be missed, for this influential painting rarely leaves its home at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. This painting displays a masterful effect of balance and repose. The painting's vertical and horizontal lines, its clean edges, right angles, ripples in the Oriental curtain, the sitter's stern posture and profile; all of these elements are arranged in an asymmetrical composition. The profile position of the sitter has been widely copied by other artists, as you see it in Henry Ossawa Tanner's Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1897 in this gallery.

Gallery 4's theme is Tonalism. Smaller scale landscape and seascape paintings hang on the wall painted in pale light blue with a hint of green. The mood of this gallery is calm, tranquil, and almost meditative. The viewer will see how the subtle transitions in light colors can create interesting nuance and depth. Many works in this gallery share a simplified composition and a restrained, monochromatic color palette. Whistler and his followers were more interested in capturing the essence of the object rather than the object itself. They knew certain experiences could best be expressed by nuance and implication, by the subtle blending of tones and arrangements of form. Eduard Steichen, for example (who is better known as a photographer), painted Shower on Lake, 1903, in shades of white with pale green on the horizon, depicting the scene of a passing rainstorm.

As its title suggests, Gallery 5 bridges a transition between Tonalism and Nocturnes. The room is painted pale yellow, as was Whistler's studio. Inspired by Whistler's work, many artists painted their version of Nocturnes as displayed in this gallery.

The last gallery's theme is Nocturnes and Fireworks. The room is painted orange, the complimentary color of blue, which is the prevailing hue of the paintings in this gallery. The most famous piece here is Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875, which is in the permanent collection of the DIA. This painting was the subject of Whistler's libel suit against the critic John Ruskin in 1878. Ruskin characterized the painting as "a pot of paint in the public's face." His abstract style was seen as unfinished and sketchy to his detractor. Whistler won the suit but only symbolically, with a nominal damage award.

If you happen to go to the show on a Friday evening, be sure to stop at Theodore Butler's Fireworks, No. 1, 1906, and Childe Hassam's Fifth Avenue Nocturne, ca. 1895 in Gallery 6. Look through the grey window shade hanging between these two paintings. What you see is a Whistlerian image: white and yellow streetlights on Kirby, vaguely visible, against the empty space in grey. This evocative image is surprisingly similar to the Nocturnes.

This exhibition offers the viewer a glimpse of an emerging current. We know for a fact that the artistic center of the world shifted from Paris to New York four or five decades after Whistler's death. It may not be far fetched to think that this current, or "American Attitude" as the curator puts it, has something to do with making American artists a vital force in the art world. Walking out of this exhibition, I couldn't agree more with what Ezra Pound, another American expatriate and a poet, wrote in 1912: "What Whistler has proved once and for all is that being born an American does not eternally damn a man or prevent him from the ultimate and highest achievement in the arts. And no man before him had proved this."

Hiroko Lancour was born and raised in Japan. She crossed the Pacific at age 22 and has been living in Michigan ever since. A programmer by profession, she finds her true passion in arts of any form. She resides with her husband, Colin, and Sachiko, an American cat whose Japanese name translates to mean "a child of happiness."

March 14 - June 6, 2004
The Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48202
313-833-8499 (for exhibit information)
877-342-8497 (for tickets)
Wednesday & Thursday 10 am - 4 pm
Friday 10 am - 9 pm
Saturday & Sunday 10 am - 5 pm

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