The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler

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Documents associated with: 118th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, Royal Academy, London, 1886
Record 4 of 4

System Number: 09184
Date: 21 August 1886
Author: JW
Place: Paris
Recipient: Henry Labouchère[1]
Place: London
Repository: Published[2]
Document Type: PLc

"Nous avons changé tout cela!"[3]

HOITY-TOITY! my dear Henry! -

What is all this? How can you startle the "Constant Reader," of this cold world, by these sudden dashes into the unexpected?

Perceive also what happens.

Sweet in the security of my own sense of things, and looking upon you surely as the typical "Sapem[4]" of modern progress and civilization, here do I, in full Paris, à l'heure de l'absinthe[5], upon mischievous discussion intent, call aloud for "Truth[6]."

"Vous allez voir[7]," I say to the brilliant brethren gathered about my table, "you shall hear the latest beautiful thing and bold, said by our great Henry - 'capable de tout[8],' beside whom 'ce coquin d'Habacuc[9]' was mild indeed and usual!" And straightway to my stultification, I find myself translating paragraphs of pathos and indignation, in which a colourless old gentleman of the Academy[10] is sympathized with, and [p. 2] made a doddering hero of, for no better reason than that he is old - and those who would point out the wisdom and comfort of his withdrawal into the wigwam of private life, sternly reproved and anathematized and threatened with shame - until they might well expect to find themselves come upon by the bears of the aged and irascible, though bald-headed, Prophet[11], whom the children had thoughtfully urged to "go up."

Fancy the Frenchmen's astonishment as I read, and their placid amusement as I attempted to point out that it was "meant drolly - that enfin you were a mystificateur!"

Henry, why should I thus be mortified? Also, why this new pose, this cheap championship of senility?

How, in the name of all that is incompetent, do you find much virtue in work spreading over more time! What means this affectation of naïveté.

We all know that work excuses itself only by reason of its quality.

If the work be foolish, it surely is not less foolish because an honest and misspent lifetime has been passed in producing it.

What matters it that the offending worker has grown old among us, and has endeared himself to [p. 3] many by his caprices as ratepayer and neighbour?

Personally, he may have claims upon his surroundings; but, as the painter of poor pictures, he is damned for ever.

You see, my Henry, that it is not sufficient to be, as you are in wit and wisdom, among us, amazing and astute; a very Daniel[12] in your judgment of many vexed questions; of a frankness and loyalty withal in your crusade against abuses, that makes of the keen litigator a most dangerous Quixote[13].

This peculiar temperament gives you that superb sense of right, outside the realms of art, that amounts to genius, and carries with it continued success and triumph in the warfare you wage.

But here it helps you not. And so you find yourself, for instance, pleasantly prattling in print of "English Art."

Learn, then, O! Henry, that there is no such thing as English Art. You might as well talk of English Mathematics. Art is Art, and Mathematics is Mathematics.

What you call English Art, is not Art at all, but produce, of which there is, and always has been, and always will be, a plenty, whether the men producing it are dead and called ——, or (I refer you to your [p. 4] own selection, far be it from me to choose) - or alive and called ——, whosoever you like as you turn over the Academy catalogue.

The great truth, you have to understand, is that it matters not at all whom you prefer in this long list. They all belong to the excellent army of mediocrity; the differences between them being infinitely small - merely microscopic - as compared to the vast distance between any one of them and the Great.

They are the commercial travellers of Art, whose works are their wares, and whose exchange is the Academy.

They pass and are forgotten, or remain for a while in the memory of the worthies who knew them, and who cling to their faith in them, as it flatters their own place in history - famous themselves - the friends of the famous!

Speak of them, if it please you, with uncovered head - even as in France you would remove your hat as there passes by the hearse - but remember it is from the conventional habit of awe alone, this show of respect, and called forth generally by the casual corpse of the commonest kind.

[butterfly signature]


Aug. 21, 1886.

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1.  Henry Labouchère
Henry Du Pré Labouchère (1831-1912), journalist and Liberal MP [more].

2.  Published
Published in Truth, 2 September 1886, and Whistler, James McNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, London and New York, 1890, pp. 169-72. A draft of this letter is #13353.

3.  Nous avons changé tout cela!
Fr., 'we have changed all that'. This phrase was used as the title of the letter in Whistler, 1890, op. cit.

4.  Sapem
This is a misprint for 'Sapeur', Fr., pioneer, which JW complained about in another letter to Truth, published 9 September 1886 (#11410).

5.  à l'heure de l'absinthe
Fr., at the hour for absinthe.

6.  Truth
See JW to Lady Archibald Campbell, 8 September 1886 (#03326).

7.  Vous allez voir
Fr., you will see.

8.  capable de tout
Fr., capable of anything.

9.  ce coquin d'Habacuc
Fr., this rascal of a Habakkuk. JW had an excellent training in the writings of the Old Testament prophets, but this reference is not entirely clear. The context, however, seems appropriate, recalling Hab. 1.1-11: 'The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received. 2. How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, "Violence!" but you do not save? 3. Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. 4. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. 5. "Look at the nations and watch - and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. 6. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own. 7. They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor. 8. Their horses are swifter than leopards, fiercer than wolves at dusk. Their cavalry gallops headlong; their horsemen come from afar. They fly like a vulture swooping to devour; 9. they all come bent on violence. Their hordes advance like a desert wind and gather prisoners like sand. 10. They deride kings and scoff at rulers. They laugh at all fortified cities; they build earthen ramps and capture them. 11. Then they sweep past like the wind and go on - guilty men, whose own strength is their god.'

10.  old gentleman of the Academy
John Rogers Herbert (1810-1890), painter of portraits, genre and landscape [more], is the target of JW's attack (see also JW to J. E. Boehm, #08126). Herbert had exhibited eight paintings at the 118th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, Royal Academy, London, 1886, including landscapes, biblical and near-Eastern subjects, such as J. R. Herbert, Our Lord Stilling the Tempest (z196) and J. R. Herbert, The First Coming of the Sword of Islam into Spain (z199) (cat. nos. 3, 676).

11.  Prophet
An allusion the prophet Elisha: 'And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them,' 2 Kings 2.23-4.

12.  Daniel
'As for these four children, God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom: and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.' Dan. 1. 17. Herbert's exhibits also included J. R. Herbert, The Judgement of Daniel Against the False Elders (z198) (cat. no. 244).

13.  Quixote
Don Quixote, hero of Cervantes' novel, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605), was characterised by the rashness of his judgements and quickness of temper.