Whistler’s Claim for Beauty

James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) is the poison-tipped flower in the hothouse of American art. A publicity crazed poseur fired by self-fictions and “art-for-art’s-sake” ambition, he was naturally a dandy, a serial dater of actresses and artist’s models. But he was also a mama’s boy who fell out with everyone who knew him, except his mother, to whom he was devoted and whose noble Presbyterian brow Whistler painted in one very famous picture.

Whistler’s personality is one thing. Is his art entirely another? They share, at least, the artist’s ardor for beauty. A new show at the Frick, “Portraits, Pastels, Prints: Whistler in the Frick Collection,” is one of the most reliably pleasurable shows this summer.

The show, which runs until Aug. 23, temporarily reunites four full-length Whistler portraits in the Oval Gallery: Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink (1871-74); Arrangement in Brown and Black (1876-78); Harmony in Pink and Grey (1881-82); and Arrangement in Black and Gold (1891-92). Joining them is one of the artist’s Symphony seascapes and—in a side gallery—an accomplished suite of etchings and works on paper the artist made during a 14-month trip to Venice in 1878-79.

The portraits constitute the core of the show, though. They are the kind of demonstrations of knockout confidence that established Whistler’s reputation as an aesthete’s aesthete in London, the artist’s adopted hometown. It is more or less obligatory to mention the radical formal aspects of Whistler’s work: the exploration of purely pictorial values, his use of flat (or at least shallow) space, the befogged “Nocturne” landscapes, which anticipated the preoccupation of later painters like the Impressionists. There is something to this.

Posed in front of a depthless black background, Rosa Corder, of Arrangement in Brown and Black, appears almost to vanish before she can be named. As for Whistler’s Mr. Black and Gold, identified as Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, I’m not sure I like his looks.

Standing in the middle of the gallery, suddenly you have a sense of how Whistler’s art inhabits the world: by ratifying other, often greater works of beauty around him. Like Manet, he was inspired by Spanish painting. Next door hangs Velazquez’s Philip IV King of Spain (1644). You may think of Whistler as the warm-up man for the great Spaniard. Whistler performs similar hymns to other works in the collection, such as the gilt Renaissance bronzes that look like chocolate, and the collection’s single, scintillant Monet.

Frick clearly felt some kind of kinship with Whistler. Between 1914 and 1919, Frick acquired 20 Whistlers, the most of any artist in his collection. What did the Satan of the Homestead Strikes ever see in a fop like Whistler?  Here’s my guess: a militancy of taste, the flashing of steel beneath the silk and plum blossoms. So it was in life. Whistler became an actual, as opposed to imagined, aesthete-hero in 1878 when he sued the art critic John Ruskin for libel. The story is this: Whistler had painted a semi-abstract picture (not in the show) that Ruskin ridiculed, accusing the artist of “flinging a pot of paint” in the face of the public.

Whistler sued the critic, a tactic sometimes known as self-promotion. But what rescues the incident from squalor—Whistler was awarded a farthing’s damage and, bankrupted by the legal costs, left for France—was Whistler’s defense. When asked by the prosecutor how he could give up so much for a painting that only took him two days to make, Whistler replied, “No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.” Whistler, forced to defend art for art’s sake in court, set down the enduring modern precedent for an artist’s claims for beauty.

[“Portraits, Pastels, Prints: Whistler in the Frick Collection” is on display at the Frick Museum through August 23.]

  Whistler’s Claim for Beauty