System Number: 02992
Date: [21/26 January 1880]
Recipient: Marcus Bourne Huish
Repository: Glasgow University Library
Call Number: MS Whistler LB 3/8
Document Type: ALS
My dear Mr Huish -
I am shocked out of all my usual impassiveness by the suggestion I have this instant read with horror in your letter, that I could be neglecting the work, for which I had exiled myself, in order to trifle with plates, whose exaggerated size, not only partook of the character so generally accorded to all Howellian assertion, but would have been proof enough in itself - were any needed - of the unlikelihood of the story! -
Little Mr Brown could have told you how Mr Whistler holds in contempt & derision the "big plate" - the advertisement of the ignorant - the inevitable pitfall of the amateur -
I am even astonished that Howell himself - in his desire to make statements - should have missed this tip - as he has often heard me scoff at the vulgarity of the pretence - and point out the gross condition of brain that could tolerate the offensive disproportion between the delicate needle of the etcher and the monster plate to be covered! - Perceive how inartistic is the undertaking - based as it is [p. 2] on the dulness which distinguishes not between mastery of manner, and "muchness" of matter! - From this pente ridicule the painter's science saves him - he knows that the dimensions of work must be always in relation to the means used - and reaching the limit, unerringly lays aside the needle for the brush, that he may not find himself worming his weary way across a waste of copper - all quality lost - all joy of execution gone - nothing remaining but the doleful task for the dreary industry of the foolish - the virtue of the duffer!. - Behold now the hardy though unconscious Amateur! - He hesitates not! - and so we have heads the size of soup plates - and landscapes like luncheon trays - while lines are bitten furiously until in the impression they stand out like the knotted veins on his own unthinking brow -
Poor meek Rembrant [sic]! - with his mild miniatures - beside such colossal deeds how dwarfed he becomes! how uninteresting his puny portraits of diminutive Burgomaster Siegmund Clement de Young - how weak his little windmill - - - - - - Ah well! nous avons changé tout celà! - . . . But this is not a letter! - I shall find myself in the midst of another pamphlet so by the way you had better carefully keep this - for who knows - I may borrow it for an extract - Meanwhile I am not sorry that in this moment of your anxiety you should find me enunciating theories and offering doctrines as a means of reference - for I wish you to see in this very preoccupation and certainty in what concerns my work a reason for rejecting doubtful suggestions from outsiders - The "Venice" my dear Mr Huish will be superb - and you may double your bets all round - only I can't fight against the Gods - with whom I am generally a favorite - and not come to grief - so that now - at this very moment - I am an invalid and a prisoner - because I rashly thought I might hasten matters by standing in the snow with a plate in my hand and an icicle at the end of my nose. - I was ridiculous - the Gods saw it and sent me to my room in disgrace. - For two weeks, with an ulcerated throat and a native doctor, have I been fought over by an attached friend with a faith in homoeopathy - though an architect by profession - perhaps because an architect. - Sly doses of Aconite have counteracted gargles until at length refusing further experiments, I have asserted my right as a wreck - and now comes your letter of reproach. - I have not written to you for I hate writing - and couldn't tell you anything thing [sic] that you didn't already well know - Have you not read how the people in Monté Carlo fled before the snow - shrieking with fear at the unknown miracle? How Mount Vesuvius is frozen inside - and nothing but icicles come out? - How here in Venice there has been a steady hardening of every faculty belonging to the painter for the last two months and a half at least - during which time you might as well have proposed to etch on a block of Wenham Lake as to have done anything with a copper [p. 3] plate that involves holding it! - Nevertheless be comfortable Huish - and put on an air of ease when you appear among the questioning philistines and unbelievers generally - for it is a good thing you have gone in for and will pay splendidly in the end - and after all it is even "for the best" that this inclemency should have interferred [sic] - for had there been nothing but ordinary weather to deal with, your twelve plates would have been finished & I should have been back in London before I had at all known the mine of wealth for both you and me in this place -
and yYou see when I promised to come here and complete a set of etchings within a given time, I undertook a Herculean task without knowing it - but as far as the mere plates went doubtless I should have carried out my contract had not Providence interferred greatly to the advantage of us both - and now I have learned to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived, and which, if I bring back with me as I propose will far more than compensate for all annoyances delays & vexation of spirit - Of course I should have found you something new in any case - but it would not have been so complete - and the trouvaille would not have been such a mine of wealth as I shall manage to make it - I have not been idle you may be sure - The etchings themselves are far more delicate in execution, more beautiful in subject and more important in interest than any of the old set - Then I shall bring fifty or sixty if not more pastels totaly [sic] new and of a brilliancy very different from the customary watercolor - and will sell - I don't see how they can help it - But then my dear Huish the revers de la medaille [sic]! -
I am frozen - and have been for months - and you cant hold a needle with numbed fingers - and beautiful work cannot be finished in bodily agony - also I am starving - or shall be soon - for it must be amazing even to you that I should have made my money last this long -
You had better send me fifty pounds at once and trust to a thaw which will put us all right - If I come back with pictures drawings and etchings the expedition will have succeeded beyond all hope and each item will go to increase the value of the other -
Please write and address Café Florian
Place St. Marc - Venice -
Very sincerely Yours
J A McN. Whistler
The 57th day of hard unrelenting frost! Venetian method of counting -
Send for Howell and read him my letter! -
Published in Thorp, Nigel (Editor), Whistler on Art: Selected Letters and Writings 1849-1903 of James McNeill Whistler, Manchester, 1994, and Washington, 1995, pp. 62-65.
7. pente ridicule
Fr., downward slope.
9. Siegmund Clement de Young
Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn, Clement de Young(z322) (see Christopher White and Karel G. Boon, Rembrandt's etchings, an illustrated critical catalogue, Amsterdam, Van Gendt & New York, Abner Schram, . cat. no. B.272) .
11. nous avons changé tout celà
Fr., we have changed all that.
JW refined this statement on the size of etchings and published it later as a 'Proposition' (Whistler, James McNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, London and New York, 1890, pp. 76-7).
16. Wenham Lake
The Wenham Lake Ice Company were suppliers of ice to Queen Victoria. They had an outlet in the Strand (Weightman, Gavin, The Frozen Water Trade, Harper Collins, 2002).
17. for the best
Quotation derived from Voltaire, Candide, ch. 23, 'Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles.'
19. Venice in Venice
JW's etchings and pastels depicted back streets, courtyards and canals rather than the well-known tourist sites.
20. never seem to have
Written over 'have never seen'.
Fr., a find, a stroke of inspiration; but JW may mean 'travail', work.
See MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995, M.725-828.
23. revers de la medaille
Fr., reverse of the medal.
JW painted very few oils in Venice (Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980, YMSM 211-222a).
25. Café Florian
The popular café in the Piazza San Marco.