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James McNeill Whistler: Selected Works from the Hunterian Art Gallery
October 17 - January 2, 2005
(above: McNeill Whistler, James, Hurlinghan, 1879, etching, © Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)
The Dixon Gallery and Gardens is presenting the exhibition James McNeill Whistler: Selected Works from the Hunterian Art Gallery from October 17, 2004 through January 2, 2005. Selected works from the world-famous collection of the artist's estate has come to the United States for the first time, with the Dixon being the first venue of a national tour. These works, along with some of Whistler's personal effects, were donated to the Hunterian by Rosalind Birnie Philip, youngest sister of Whistler's wife Beatrix. The items provide an intimate portrait of the life and times of this famed American expatriate. (right: McNeill Whistler, James, Nocturne, c.1875-1877, oil, © Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)
The Hunterian Art Gallery in Scotland has the largest collection of Whistlers' works and personal affects, providing a unique opportunity for the United States public to view an intimate introduction to the art and times of an expatriate American artist.
Known as a dandy, raconteur, polemicist and caustic defender of his artistic vision, he endured severe criticism and bankruptcy. Despite many obstacles he achieved international fame during his lifetime. Collected in France, England and the United States, Whistler's major works in the US are found at the Taft Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Freer Gallery of Art, the Detroit Institute of Art, The Frick Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art from among the museums that collect his paintings, etchings and lithographs.
The Hunterian Art Gallery has by far the most extensive collection of Whistler's art, ranging from paintings to prints to sketch designs for costumes, interiors and graphic images. Included in this exhibition of 129 works are a dozen paintings, 57 prints, and personal belongings such as silverware, porcelain, manuscripts and books.
Some notable paintings include Self-Portrait, c. 1896, from a series painted in the 1890s with the intention of depicting his likeness as well as his inner personality. Red and Black, The Fan, c. 1891-1894 is a portrait of Whistler's sister-in-law, Miss Ethel Birnie Phillip. It is remarkable for its attention to current fashion. Nocturne, 1875-77 depicts the Thames river and is illustrative of a style he developed, which eschewed realism through obscuring detail in favor of shape and color. This style became known as "Aestheticism."
The print selection offers a wide variety of imagery spanning nearly forty years of graphic production from 1858 to 1896. Compared during his lifetime with the great work of Rembrandt, selected prints from The Second Venice Set, The French Set, The Thames Set and lithographs portraying family and ward are incorporated in this show.
James McNeill Whistler, stylish and haute courant, embraced the fashion of the time. Japanese prints and silks influenced many works by contemporaries. Dishware imported from the Orient became the de rigeur on fashionable tables. Whistler adopted the vogue and applied it not only to his paintings and interior decoration but also to his personal tableware. The exhibition contains personal affects including 9 pieces from his cupboard of Qing Dynasty, Kangxi period porcelain, and 35 silver cutlery pieces. Personal letters to his brother and from Claude Monet, as well as a copy of his famous manuscript The Gentle Art of Making Enemies are featured in the exhibition.
A free thinker, Whistler is attributed with advancing a concept for art embraced later by the middle of the 20th century. Partially influenced by Japanese art, which made no distinction between decorative and "high" art, Whistler believed that painting exists for its own sake: "Art should be independent of all claptrap -- should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye and ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works 'arrangements' and 'harmonies.'" This novel idea departed from Pre-Raphaelite concepts prevalent in the contemporary art milieu.
Whistler publicly advocated and defended his artistic vision. His defense led to caustic articles published in the press and in one instance to litigation. Willing to stake his name and purse in pursuit of vindication he sued the art critic John Ruskin for libel. One of his defenders wrote:
About the artist
Whistler, known as both a rebel and an aesthete, is one of the most influential artists of the nineteenth century. He was famous for his wit and dandyism, and loved controversy. His lifestyle was lavish and he was often in debt. Influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, he befriended Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oscar Wilde was also among his famous friends. (right: McNeill Whistler, James, Red and Black - The Fan, c.1891-1894, oil, © Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)
Whistler's art is in many respects the opposite of his often-aggressive personality, being discreet and subtle, but the creed that lay behind it was radical. Because of Whistler's lack of coherent style, his belief in aesthetic art, and rejection of traditional story-telling or moral art, and his exploration of any mediums, the public often did not know what to make of Whistler, and so he was never as famous or given as much credit as other artists of this period. He, however, had great influence on the art world in many ways. Because of his love of japonisme and decorative arts, many credit him with helping to start the Art Nouveau movement. Furthermore, because of his belief in art for art's sake and his focus on aesthetics, he helped initiate the Modernist movement.
Whistler publicly advocated and defended his artistic vision. His defense led to scathing articles published in the press, and in one instance, to litigation. In 1877 the critic John Ruskin denounced Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875; Detroit Institute of Arts), accusing him of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Willing to stake his name and purse in pursuit of vindication, he sued the art critic for libel. He won the action, but eventually filed bankruptcy because of court costs and negative publicity. His manuscript, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, contains his own account of this trial along with some of his other writings.
During the late 1880s and 1890s Whistler achieved recognition as an artist of international stature. His paintings were acquired by public collections, he received awards at exhibitions, and he was elected to such prestigious professional associations as the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Munich.
In 1888 he married Beatrix Godwin, widow of the architect E.W. Godwin, but she died only eight years later and he withdrew from an active social life. In 1902 he fell ill from heart disease and died in England of July 17, 1903. The year of his death, a memorial exhibition was held in Boston; the following year similar retrospectives were held by the International Society in London, and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
The Dixon Gallery and Gardens is located in East Memphis on Park Avenue between Getwell and Perkins, across from Audubon Park in Memphis, Tennessee. The street address for the Dixon Gallery and Gardens is 4339 Park Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee 38117.
RL Editor's notes:
Text describing the exhibition was also provided by International Arts & Artists, the organizer of the exhibition. International Arts & Artists is a non-profit, comprehensive arts service organization founded in 1995.
See a narrated slide show of The Peacock Room from the Smithsonian Institution. (The Freer Gallery's Peacock Room is where James McNeill Whistler transformed his patron's dining room into a landmark of interior design) According to John Gordy, Head of Digital Media, Smithsonian Institution Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the content for the online presentation came from a book by the former American art curator, Linda Merell titled "The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography." The original interactive was created in the Digital Media department of the Gallery and the audio slide tour was prepared by Marc Bretzfelder in the central Smithsonian web office.
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