The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler

return to search results

Documents associated with: Winter Exhibition, Society of British Artists, London, 1885-1886
Record 11 of 14

System Number: 11361
Date: 15 July 1886
Author: [Malcolm C. Salaman?][1]
Place: [London]
Recipient: Editor, The Court and Society Review[2]
Place: [London]
Repository: Library of Congress
Call Number: Manuscript Division, Pennell-Whistler Collection, PWC 14/1330-5
Document Type: Ms and TLc

'Paper lent by Mr. Salaman[3]'
'The Court and Society Review'

July 15th 1886


The Whistler article and correspondence[4] have apparently penetrated to the sacred shrine or smoking-room of the Savile Club[5]. At all events, the Saturday Oracle has been consulted, and has responded. After this we feel that silence would be more reverential. But oracular responses even in early times have been known to provoke further discussion, and it seems to us that the two points which are really under discussion have so far been passed over, or obscured in a cloud of words. Big critics, it seems, have little critics, upon their backs to bite 'em, little critics have lesser critics, and so ad finitum; but one and all they avoid a plain statement of the questions at issue. Is Mr. Whistler an artist? it has been asked in the first instance; in the second, is he a great artist?

It is pleasant to record that the question A has been decided in a sense favourable to Mr. Whistler. Like the victims of the Belt trial[6], and others, he has suffered many things at the hands of the great British public, and the juryman guardian of its palladium. But now the decision in Whistler v. Ruskin[7] has been practically reversed. Mr. Whistler is justly recognised as a master and an authority upon Art; while Ruskin - ? Is it not the fact that he finds few in these days to remember gratefully how as a young man he blew the trumpet mightily against the dull enemy's crumbling walls? At all events, his opinion, even on his own subject, is but little regarded; and on the thousand and one general topics of which he treats with grave airs of in- [p. 2] fallibility, he furnished food for irreverent mirth. He and Carlyle[8] are a pair; and are like to go down to posterity, the one as an ill-tempered, the other as a singularly amiable enthusiast.

But that other question of 'greatness in art'. We cannot admit that anyone has accurately defined what the quality may mean, or has even perceived the difficulty of definition. Some would say the artist is greatest who interprets most powerfully the spirit of his own time; others, in direct opposition, that it is he who can look about him and ahead, untroubled by contemporary chatter. Shakspeare, whose name is too lightly dragged into controversies, we revere, in that he had omnipresent sympathies, that he had seen every conceivable situation in which a man can find himself, and could express all that he inwardly saw and felt in noble language, and in the only adequate form - the drama. Thinking of this, one is tempted to wonder if any comparison lies between genius of that high order and the painter who after all can appeal to only one sense and express only visual truths.

The possible number of musical combinations is limited, we know, and perhaps the revelation of pictorial art is yet narrower. The vehemence of artistic advocacy which, when primary colour is desired for the hour (as it was ten years ago) will hear only of the Pre-Raphaelite masters, of Byzantine or early Florentine art; or as now, when another note is sounded, will crown Velasquez[9] alone. This vehemence, not to say violence, seems of itself to suggest that the quarrel does not turn on a very grave matter [p. 3] after all. The great gale raises less dust then the little vortex wind that blows about its own centre.

The word has gone round among the critics to take technique only about their pictures, no doubt for substantial and present purposes. But it is not thus that the question of greatness in art can be determined. The cold marble of Greek statues has been breathed upon by ideal and spiritual influences, and informed by minds steeped in a noble calm, at peace with themselves and with Eternal Things. The voluptuous colour and riotous fancy of the Renaissance are a splendid symbol of revolt against the rank asceticism and nake[d] ignorance of the dark ages. This we know; but has anyone attempted to point out in like manner how Mr Whistler is related in emotion, in thought, or in sense to the present?

We are neither for the prosecution nor for the defence, only desiring to watch the case. But we would suggest on the one side that there is much in Mr. Whistler's treatment of Nature which suggests the soft melancholy and dreaminess of the modern mind; that he has more right to borrow Chopin's favourite names of 'Nocturne' and 'Impromptu[10]' than may appear to matter-of-fact and literal-thinking persons. On the other side there is that questionable departure in the direction of the nude, illustrated by the picture at the British Artists[11], which does not seem innocent of cynicism. On the whole we cannot expect to estimate exactly a living artist's relation to his generation: for to know him were to know ourselves, and it is not given to us to see ourselves as others shall.

[p. 4] To the above we add a detailed reply to the article in [sic] our esteemed contemporary already referred to, which reaches us from a correspondent. This communication will show the Saturday Reviewer to himself as he appears to a Whistlerite, and may be headed -


The Saturday Reviewer holds that he is 'only one of the many masters whose example had led artists to look at for themselves, and to understand, both art and nature.' Yet, although he had done all this, Mr. Whistler - the Saturday Reviewer tells us - 'can in no way be counted the master or director' of 'the younger men whose work one sees at the Marlborough Gallery or Suffolk Street[13].' So much the worse for the younger men, if, as the Saturday Reviewer tells us, Mr. Whistler's example could have led them to understand both nature and art. 'Perhaps no man', says the Reviewer, 'is more logical, more careful, more intentional in all that he does' (These qualities would not have made a bad starting point for younger men). 'His system is consistently based on nature and the true conditions of vision.' (Perhaps younger men might do worse than to base their system on nature. I say nothing about the true conditions of vision, because if younger men lack these, they would do well to abandon the pursuit of art altogether, and following the advice given by Mr. Carlyle to the unpoetic poet - 'turn their attention to the making of shoes.')

'Again,' the reviewer says, 'it would be difficult to name among living artists an artist more refined and original than Mr. [p. 5] Whistler is'. (Well, a little refinement and originality could hardly hurt younger men). And finally, 'in knowledge of nature and of his own limitations' - self-knowledge is admitted by philosophers to be the highest attainment - 'in pictorial science, in decorative elegance, he is vastly the superior of all the younger men at Marlborough Gallery and Suffolk Street.' This seems something more than an anticlimax; it suggests a mystery. The younger men to who he is so vastly superior are not among the men whom he has led by his example 'to look at for themselves and to understand both art and nature.' Will the reviewer tell us where the aged men whom he has led to understand both art and nature exhibit their work?

The Reviewer now turns from 'intelligent comprehension' of all these great qualities in Mr Whistler, and proceeds to prove to us that he is not the great and mighty master which Mr Salaman proclaims him. He proves this by saying that 'he entirely sacrifices anything like Shapspearian [sic] fulness [sic] of matter and emotion to unity of style and treatment'; that 'he never attempts anything that is outside the scope of the art' (which he understands), 'or of his own powers' (the limitations of which he also understands), and that 'in his delicate reticence and refined sense of measure, he is an exquisite artist.'

Now all this seems 'rather mixed' to outsiders. How does a man contrive entirely to sacrifice anything like something else? Did Shakspeare [sic], from fulness [sic] of matter and emotion, entirely sacrifice unity of style and treatment, as Mr Whistler sacrifices [p. 6] fulness of matter and emotion, [to?] these? Do great and mighty masters prove their greatness and mightiness by attempting things outside the scope of their art and their own powers, and if not, why does Mr Whistler's delicate reticence in avoiding these errors prove that he is not a great and mighty master? Is it by the lack of delicate retiscence and refined sense of measure that great and mighty masters assert themselves? Was Shakspeare not an exquisite artist?

There is yet one minor point which adds to my regret that the younger men will not be led by Mr Whistler to understand art, even if they persist in leaving it to the aged men to be led to understand nature. The reviewers tell us that it is 'primarilly a notable proof that Mr Whistler's temperament is thoroughly artistic, that his idea of finish' renders him 'capable of slipping elegantly over the expression of such points as he has not examined with sympathy.' There are some younger and older men in the Marlborough galleries and in Suffolk Street who are capable of slipping over the expression of a good many points; but how well it would be, if, taking their 'idea of finish' from Mr Whistler, they would - since slip they must - slip elegantly!

This document is protected by copyright.


1.  [Malcolm C. Salaman?]
This is part of a sequence of typescript copies with manuscript corrections made by Malcolm Charles Salaman (1855-1940), art critic and dramatist [more], and sent to E. R. and J. Pennell. However, it is possible that it was written in support of JW by William McNeill Whistler (1836-1900), physician, JW's brother [more] (see #09589).

2.  Editor, The Court and Society Review
The Court and Society Review, a London-based journal.

3.  Paper lent by Mr. Salaman
The top two lines are written by hand.

4.  article and correspondence
The sequence of articles starts with Salaman, Malcolm C., 'Hail President Whistler,' The Court and Society Review, 10 June 1886.

5.  Savile Club
This may be a mistake for 'Savage Club'. Both were private gentlemen's clubs.

6.  Belt trial
The Belt and Lawes trial (see letter to The Court and Society Review, 10 July 1886, #11360).

7.  Whistler v. Ruskin
The case of Whistler v. Ruskin was heard at the Queen's Bench of the High Court on 25-26 November 1878.

8.  Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), historian and philosopher [more].

9.  Velasquez
Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), painter [more].

10.  Chopin's favourite names of 'Nocturne' and 'Impromptu
Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin (1810-1849), Polish composer and pianist. At the suggestion of F. R. Leyland, JW adopted certain musical terms, including 'Nocturne' but not 'Impromptu', for the titles of his works.

11.  picture at the British Artists
There was some controversy over the morality of drawing nude models. John Calcott Horsley (1817-1903), historical genre painter and etcher [more], was so outspoken on this subject he became known as 'Clothes Horsley'. When JW exhibited Note in Violet and Green (M.1074) at the Winter Exhibition, Society of British Artists, London, 1885-1886, he put up a label reading 'Horsley soit qui mal y pense' (see Pall Mall Gazette, 8 and 10 December 1885, reprinted in Whistler, James McNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, London, 1890, p. 195).

Lat., Whistler or no-one.

13.  Suffolk Street
The galleries of the Society of British Artists. JW was elected President of the SBA on 1 June 1886 and took office in December. He was forced to resign on 4 June 1888 but retained the post until November.