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
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.
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,
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
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.
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."