Whistler’s Mother

It never occurred to me that the American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who made so many other claims on the public’s attention, both in his own lifetime and in ours, would one day be drafted into service as an arbiter of taste in the world of haute couture . Yet that day is now upon us in the exhibition at the Frick Collection called Whistler, Women, and Fashion . Be advised, however, that this is a show that students of the history of fashion are likely to have a livelier interest in than connoisseurs of painting.

From much that’s been written about Whistler’s life, which was the very archetype of the 19th-century vie du bohème , it has long been known that he was a man with a robust appetite for women. That he had as keen an interest in dressing women as in undressing them might have been inferred, I suppose, form his high-glamour portraits of stylishly dressed ladies, but as my own interest in fashion design is virtually nil, I hadn’t given the matter much thought. And until now, anyway, this was not believed to be a subject of compelling interest for an art museum devoted to the Old Masters and the 19th-century painters who were judged to be their successors.

But times change, of course, and we’re now in a period when so-called crossover exhibitions, which combine an interest in art with a variety of other, more popular subjects, can be expected to prosper at the box office. (Think of the Hip-Hop Nation show at the Brooklyn Museum and the American Century extravaganza at the Whitney.) And for Whistler, the Frick has been known to make allowances. That his work is even exhibited at the Frick is, after all, an anomaly, for the museum doesn’t as a rule either collect or exhibit American art. The only American painter besides Whistler in its permanent collection is Gilbert Stuart, with-what else?-a portrait of George Washington. Yet for a number of big-time American collectors in the era of Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), the collection’s founder, Whistler exerted an irresistible appeal. We’re given the rationale for this appeal in a foreword to the catalog of Whistler, Women, and Fashion . “It is hardly surprising,” writes Samuel Sachs II, “that Henry Clay Frick … acquired the paintings by Whistler as soon as they came on the market between 1914 and 1918, given that many of the masters that the painter admired and emulated-among them, Holbein, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Gainsborough-already formed part of his collection.” Yet, as we’re once again reminded by the portraits that are the principal focus of this exhibition, Whistler had never been a painter in that exalted class.

It was left to another great collector, Albert C. Barnes, the founder of the Barnes Foundation, who was also a superb (and nowadays underrated) critic, to give us the definitive assessment of Whistler. In The Art in Painting (third edition, 1937), Barnes wrote that Whistler “leans heavily upon traditions, to which he adds too little to take high rank as an artist. The daintiness and grace of his work are generally used to render poses; one feels it is not only the pose of the subject, but also the pose of the artist in the effort to make an impression. Occasionally, as in the portrait of the ‘Artist’s Mother,’ he also renders character in honest art-terms. His synthesis of various traditions-the Japanese, Velázquez’s, Courbet’s-is clever rather than imaginative or creative. While he undoubtedly has a pictorial sense and a feeling for life, neither seems to have been very deep or original.”

Closer to our own day, the late Fairfield Porter-who, in my judgment, was a greater painter than Whistler as well as a fine critic-pretty much confirmed Barnes’s assessment, though in somewhat different terms. In 1960, Porter wrote that “the art [Whistler] asserted had the grace of integrity because it left out everything foreign to it and against it. It left out emotion and morality: its integrity made it shallow. His paintings are beautifully constructed boxes in which a few jewels rattle around. Eakins thought Whistler’s way of painting cowardly….” Indeed, what makes Whistler, Women, and Fashion a curious experience for anyone with a keen interest in painting is that it seems expressly conceived to underscore the shallow quality of the portraits the museum has assembled to mark the centenary of the artist’s death. Although the women in the paintings are generally identified by name, in the paintings they serve merely as mannequins, devoid of character or personality. What counts in these paintings is the pose that Barnes wrote about, the pose of a gifted artist who sacrificed just about everything to achieve a seductive and utterly superficial effect.

As an episode in the history of fashion, however, the exhibition-or rather, the people who come to see it-offer a quite different lesson. On the morning I saw the show, the majority in attendance were women, and though their ages varied, every one of them was wearing pants, and none could be said to have invested much thought to achieving an aesthetic effect. Indeed, they hardly seemed to belong to the same civilization as the mannequins in the Whistler paintings.

Oh, well. That’s what happens at “crossover” exhibitions: The mind tends to wander into territories that have little or nothing to do with the art. The punishment fits the crime, so to speak. For anyone with a keen interest in the history of fashion, however, both Whistler, Women, and Fashion and the people who come to see it remain on view at the Frick Collection, Fifth Avenue at 70th Street, through July 13.

Whistler’s Mother