James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) was one of the greatest artists of the late nineteenth century, and the finest etcher since Rembrandt. An expatriate American, he had a huge influence on the cultural world of London and Paris, friends with Manet, Courbet and Rossetti, as well as Oscar Wilde, Mallarmé, and other artists and intellectuals of that golden age. Whistler’s credo ‘Art for Art’s sake’ brought him into conflict with the art establishment of the time who favoured narrative and allegorical painting. His personal symbol of a butterfly with a stinging tail represented both sides of his character – a gentle sensitive nature combined with a combative and provocative spirit. His belief in the importance of balance and harmony extended beyond the composition of his work to the arrangement of his exhibitions, interior decoration and furniture, and even his own appearance which was carefully cultivated. ‘A century before Warhol, Whistler treated his own persona as a work of art’ (Ann Landi, Art News, December 2014).
He was admired and derided in equal measure during his life and for some time after it. His friends and compatriots Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell wrote an exhaustive two volume biography that was published in 1908, and there have been dozens since. However, I think the best book ever written about the artist was by his pupil, sometime friend, and acolyte Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938). Written in 1904, the memories of his time with Whistler were fresh in his mind, and he writes in a wonderfully intimate and descriptive way:
Mortimer Menpes: ‘Whistler Monocle, Left Eye, Head Tilted’. c. 1880. Drypoint*
“Even in so small a detail as the dressing of his hair, Whistler was most particular. Many people thought him vain; but that idea is quite false. He treated his hair, as he could not but treat everything about him, purely from the artistic standpoint, as a picture, a bit of decoration. Many a time have I been with him to his hair-dresser in Regent Street, and very serious and important was the dressing of the Master’s head. Customers ceased to be interested in their own hair; operators stopped their manipulations; everyone turned to watch Whistler having his head dressed.
He himself was supremely unconscious. The bystanders troubled him not at all. The hair was trimmed but left rather long. Whistler meanwhile directing the cutting of every lock as he watched the barber in the glass. The poor fellow, only too conscious of the delicacy of his task, shook and trembled as he manipulated his scissors. Well he might, for was not this common barber privileged, to be thus an instrument in the carrying out of a masterpiece, a picture by the Master? The clipping completed, Whistler waved the operator imperiously to one side, and we noticed for a while the back view of this dapper little figure surveying himself in the glass, stepping now backward, now forward.
Suddenly, to the intense surprise of the bystanders, he put his head into a basin of water, and then, half drying his hair, shook it into matted wet curls. With a comb he carefully picked out the white lock, a tuft of hair just above his forehead, wrapped it in a towel, and walked about the room for from five to ten minutes pinching it dry, with the rest of the hair hanging over his face. This stage of the process caused great amusement at the hair-dresser’s. Still pinching the towel, Whistler would then beat the rest of his hair into ringlets (to comb them would not have given them the right quality), until they fell into decorative waves all over his head. A loud scream would then rend the air! Whistler wanted a comb! This procured, he would comb the white lock into a feathery plume, and with a few broad movements of his hand form the whole into a picture. Then he would look beamingly at himself in the glass, and say but two words, – “Menpes, amazing!” – and sail triumphantly out of the shop.
Once having stepped into a four-wheeler, he put his head out to give a direction to the driver. His hat just touched the window, and disarranged his hair. Whistler stopped the cab, got out, re-entered the hair-dresser’s, and the work began again.”
Mortimer Menpes, “Whistler As I Knew Him”, Adam & Charles Black, London 1904; Chapter III ‘The Man’ pp 33-35
*As well as this sympathetic biography Menpes created several superb portraits of Whistler that really captured the character and spirit of the man. They are hard to find these days, but a good print of the one above is currently available from the Allinson Gallery.