The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler

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Documents associated with: Winter Exhibition, Society of British Artists, London, 1886-1887
Record 12 of 23

System Number: 09473
Date: [30 November 1886][1]
Author: JW
Place: [London]
Recipient: George Earle Buckle[2]
Place: [London]
Repository: Published
Document Type: PLc[3]

To the Editor of the Times. -

Sir, -

In his article upon the Society of British Artists[4], your Art gentleman ventures the opinion of the 'plain man.'

That such opinion is out of place and stultifying in a question of Art never occurs to him, and it is therefore frankly cited as, in a way, conclusive.

The naïf train of thought that justified the importance attached to this poor 'plain' opinion at all would seem to be the same that pervades the writing throughout; until it becomes difficult to discover where the easy effrontery and self-sufficiency of the 'plain one,' nothing doubting, cease, and the wit and wisdom of the experienced expert begin - so that one unconsciously confounds the incautious critic with the plausible plain person, who finally becomes the same authority.

Blind plainness certainly is the characteristic of the solemn censure upon the fine work of Mr. Stott[5], of Oldham - plain blindness the omission of all mention of Mr Ludovici's dainty dancing-girl[6].

Bewilderment among paintings is naturally the fate of the 'plain man,' but, when put forth in the Times, his utterances, however empty, acquire a semblance of sense; so that while he gravely descants with bald [p. 2] assurance upon the engineering of the light in the galleries, and the decoration of the walls, the reader stands a chance of being misled, and may not discover at once that the 'plain' writer is qualified by ignorance alone to continue.

Permit me, therefore, to rectify inconsequent impressions, and tell your readers that there is nothing 'tentative' in the 'arrangement' of colour, walls or drapery - that the battens should not 'be removed' - that they are meant to remain, not only for their use, but as bringing parallel lines into play that subdivide charmingly the lower portion of the walls and add to their light appearance - that the whole 'combination' is complete - and that the 'plain man' is, as usual, 'out of it.' -

I am, Sir, etc.,


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1.  [30 November 1886]
This date is mentioned in the reply from G. E. Buckle on 1 December 1886 (#11409).

2.  George Earl Buckle
George Earl Buckle (1854-1935), editor of the Times from 1884-1912 [more].

3.  PLc
The letter was first published in Pall Mall Gazette, 4 December 1886, p. 6, 'Mr. Whistler and the "Times" Art Critic' (see #11433). This transcription is from the publication in Whistler, James McNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, London and New York, 1890, pp. 202-3, which included minor variations in punctuation and spelling, for instance 'becomes' was changed to 'become' and 'color' to 'colour'. (See Getscher, Robert H., and Paul G. Marks, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Two Annotated Bibliographies, New York and London, 1986, B. 43.)

4.  article upon the Society of British Artists
'Society of British Artists', Times, 27 November 1886, p. 9. This was a review of the Winter Exhibition, Society of British Artists, London, 1886-1887. JW's Harmony in White and Ivory: Portrait of Lady Colin Campbell (YMSM 354) was exhibited as 'unfinished', a term which the critic felt applied to all his exhibits. JW was seen as a great contrast to his predecessor, John P. Burr (1831-1893), genre painter [more], 'the painter of good little Scotch lassies and of the prettiest and most unimpeachable of peasant idylls' (ibid). However, as the new President, JW was commended for the hanging and selection of work. The critic approved the reduction in the number of pictures, hung in two or three rows rather than from floor to ceiling, with light directed on them by the use of a velarium hung from the ceiling.

5.  Mr. Stott
William Stott of Oldham (1857-1900), genre and landscape painter [more]. W. Stott of Oldham, A Summer's Day (z203) was targetted by the Times as 'the most expensive, and the least beautiful picture in the exhibition.' (ibid).

6.  Mr Ludovici's dainty dancing-girl
Albert Ludovici, Sr (1820-1894), genre painter [more]. A. Ludovici (jr), Terpsichore (z204) showed an energetic dancing draped figure.