The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Documents associated with: Goncourt, Edmond de
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System Number: 11365
Date: [2 August 1886][1]
Author: Richard Whiteing[2]
Place: [London]
Recipient: Editor, The Court and Society Review[3]
Place: [London]
Repository: Library of Congress
Call Number: Manuscript Division, Pennell-Whistler Collection, PWC 14/1346-51
Document Type: TLc

Sir, -

Mr Whistler fait école[4]. A recent essay in the Fortnightly[5] crowns him king of painters, and the crown is sent from Paris, where they know, he keeps his state in Bond Street, with a second series of Harmonies and Nocturnes[6]; the afterglow of his blush on election as President at Suffolk Street[7] is still on his cheek, and now a flight of light and darkness rages round his white plume in the COURT AND SOCIETY REVIEW. There is talk, too, of a banquet[8] when the fight is done. It is to be a feast of the faithful, of those young men who write him The Master with a capital M. We are probably as near a new brotherhood in art as we have been since the now almost legendary beginning of the P. R. B.[9] It is the W. B.[10] now, and that is by no means all the difference. The new school is of mixed English and French origin, and it glories in having approached Whistlerism by independent inquiry from the other side. Some of the neophytes were Whistlerites before they heard of Whistler - the surest sign of a true find. They are strong in Suffolk Street, in honours and in position, if not in number; and the well-known Sundays of that institution have now the dignity of purpose as well as the delight of social reunion. Society is [p. 2] learning the new lesson, and (as at the Whitechapel picture gallery[11]) there is always some well-informed young man present to go round with the poor destitute rich and tell them the meaning of what they see. It is a golden time which had better be enjoyed while it may. Whistlerism will be as fashionable as Whistler in a little while, and soon we may expect to see it among those who are always in the movement, no matter what the movement may be. The gentleman who complained that he had been obliged to roof his studio with glass because the new mot d'ordre[12] was outdoor effects - though for his part he thought it a needless expense - is always with us. He will talk of harmonies and symphonies[13] as in another domain he talks of the novels of Boisgobé[14] and the verse of Mallarmé[15], The poets of roses will mark the new doctrine for their own, and its most perilous moment will come when dear duchesses admit there is something in it at about the hour of five in the ateliers of the West.

The true brethren are in no wise to be confounded with these triflers. They are earnest men, yet their earnestness is as much their own as their style of work. Their note is scorn withal; they have not lived in Paris for nothing. They are not humble strivers against the despotism of the Academy crying for justice, yet presenting in their own persons a finer model of resignation than anything they are able to draw. They have an air of accompanying that institution in the cart to Tyburn, and gibing at it as the nears the fatal tree. Its sense of impending doom, they maintain, is visible in the pic-[p. 3]torial demeanour - if we may be allowed the combination - of most of its members. The poor decried show of 1886, which even its own President has given up - not to say given away - is simply a mad exhibition. In this picture you may see for certain that one erstwhile most respectable Academician ratepayer and father of a family is wearing a paper crown. In that one his brother is under gentlest restraint, and is ordering the deeply commiserating keeper to make a bonfire of all the other art of the world. A little further on and a halting, uncertain, tormented piece of brushwork reveals the gloomiest apprehensions of the same fate. Is it headache merely this pang of invention, or has the dreadful moment of infirmity come? But scorn is negative, after all, and the school has a positive side. It is for the rigour of the game: all art is to be the science of form and colour, particularly of colour; and it is to care no more for subject than Wagner[16] cares for tune. Poor Mr Ruskin's[17] enthusiasm for the Shepherd's Chief Mourner[18] excites its deepest concern; this comes of judging without perfect mastery of the tool. Art is to carry out a scheme of harmonies with infinite learning, with such learning that you who look at it from the point of view of mere general intelligence and a liking for pretty things had at once better turn away. You are not in it, and the school would really be intensely grateful if you would take your praise elsewhere.

This hint of an esoteric doctrine - in fact, of a doctrine that is all esoteric - intensifies the impressiveness of the [p. 4] appeal. In such matters we are all as children; only tell us we can never understand, and we shall be eager to learn. Form is a prime mystery, particularly with the Paris group. One of them scorns a posed sitter[19], and has spent years in trying to catch the secret of appearances in a ballet girl's flight through the air. Beyond this, never venture to ask what the ballet girl is doing. A story is as odious to them, as trivial, as a plot to Edmond de Goncourt[20]. She is not supporting a baby brother or an aged parent with the point of her uplifted toe, as she might have to be to commend her as a theme to British art; she is simply bounding through the air. The all-important question is - and this not an ethical one - is the action right? Where they seek the greatest scenes of Nature it is always with a view to the subordination of the cheaper effects to a rigorous purpose of scientific exposition. Niagara if you like, but only for its agreement with earth, air, and sky, and with itself; and preferentially, as involving far less unnecessary trouble, a mill race.

The personal relation of the group to their leader is as yet their strongest bond. He towers above them all - the expression is figurative - in manifold gifts. As a colourist only he among living men sees that all that happens in this visible frame of things is but an excuse for bringing brown and gold[21] together or pink and grey[22], or any other marriageable pair. As an etcher who but he has found the law of this art of hinting - what you can do with the point and what you can-[p. 5]not, and has implied all the beauty of Venice[23] in a few cunning lines? As a man of letters - well hear the Ten O'clock[24], and judge for yourself. Epigram and the root of the matter; the literal truth, and as much exquisite fancy as if it were but a fairy tale! As a social force, meet him at dinner, and see how the promise of 'Jemmy' will always draw. 'Tis something nothing, the talk all exquisite suggestion, etching in words, summer lightning that plays above those Sleepy Hollows where magnates prose the Bank rate and the crops, and so harmlessly that the men who live there never know what is going on over their heads. His very discomfitures, you are assured, are but triumphs in disguise. What of the famous trial[25] where, though he lost the verdict, he held a whole court at bay with his delightful fence, made the judge laugh at the Queen's Counsel, and the usher hide his head for fear of seeming disrespectful to the judge, caught them in their own traps, after the Socratic[26] manner, and let them out with all kindness to have the pleasure of catching them again. Some can carry their memories or their learning further back to greater days of him, when he held a commission in the Naval service[27], and was charged with a bombardment, and sent ashore for the sketching, and was found dining with the governor of the doomed city when his squadron was awaiting the signal to bombard. Only one fault do they find in their hero, but that incurable as cancer, and not even to be cut out - trop d'esprit[28]. Trop d'esprit is the light persiflage of the pencil with which he sometimes chooses to conceal his solid acquirement, his [p. 6] various learning in art. Trop d'esprit in his impatience of the pigs and the bores. Trop d'esprit, again, in a certain humorous resignation, bitter sweet, with which he hides the wounds that dulness occasionally inflicts upon him, and, whatever is going on beneath the folds of his mantle, declares he was never so sound all over in his life.

I am, &c.,


This document is protected by copyright.


1.  [2 August 1886]
Dated by publication (see below).

2.  Richard Whiteing
Richard Whiteing (1840-1928), journalist and novelist [more]. JW acknowledged this letter appreciatively (#07042).

3.  Editor, The Court and Society Review
This is one of a series of letters following an article on JW (Salaman, Malcolm Charles, 'In Whistler's Studio,' The Court and Society Review, vol. 3, no. 104, 1 July 1886, pp. 588-90).

4.  fait école
Fr., is collecting a following.

5.  Fortnightly
The Fortnightly Review.

6.  Harmonies and Nocturnes
This is probably a reference to JW's exhibition, 'Notes' - 'Harmonies' - 'Nocturnes', Second Series, Messrs Dowdeswell, London, 1886.

7.  President at Suffolk Street
JW was elected President of the Society of British Artists on 1 June 1886 and took office in December.

8.  banquet
A banquet in JW's honour was held several years later, in 1889.

9.  P. R. B.
Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

10.  W. B.
i. e. Whistlerian Brotherhood.

11.  Whitechapel picture gallery
Whitechapel Art Gallery did not open until 1901, but had grown out of the annual picture exhibitions held in the 1880s in the schoolrooms of St Jude's parish, Whitechapel, by Canon Samuel Augustus Barnett (1844-1913), Trustee of the Whitechapel Art Gallery [more] and his wife. This could also refer to Toynbee Hall, set up in 1884, as a university settlement in Whitechapel, or the network of clubs and classes Barnett set up to address not only the spiritual but the intellectual and recreative needs of his parishioners.

12.  mot d'ordre
Fr., watchword, slogan.

13.  harmonies and symphonies
JW gradually adopted musical terminology in his picture titles, to emphasize the importance of colour over subject.

14.  Boisgobé
Fortuné de Boisgobey (1824-1891), writer of detective stories [more], like Le Forçat colonel (1872).

15.  Mallarmé
Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), Symbolist writer and poet [more].

16.  Wagner
Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813-1883), composer [more].

17.  Mr Ruskin's
John Ruskin (1819-1900), critic, social reformer and artist [more].

18.  Shepherd's Chief Mourner
E. Landseer, The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner (z345). Ruskin praises this painting as 'one of the most perfect ... pictures ... which modern times have seen', Ruskin, John, Modern Painters, London, 1843-60, vol. 1, Chapter 3, pp. 88-89.

19.  One of them scorns a posed sitter
Possibly Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917), artist [more].

20.  Edmond de Goncourt
Edmond de Goncourt (1822-1896), writer [more].

21.  brown and gold
It is not entirely clear if this is a reference to JW's picture titles or to the colour scheme for 'Notes' - 'Harmonies' - 'Nocturnes', Second Series, Messrs Dowdeswell, London, 1886, for which the galleries were designed as an Arrangement in Brown and Gold.

22.  pink and grey
For 'Notes' - 'Harmonies' - 'Nocturnes', Messrs Dowdeswell, London, 1884, the galleries were designed as an Arrangement in Flesh-Colour and Grey.

23.  Venice
In Venice 1879-1880, JW made many of his finest etchings (K.183-232, 240), pastels (M.725-828) and oils (YMSM 211-222).

24.  Ten O'clock
JW's 'Ten O'Clock' Lecture was delivered in Princes Hall, London, on 20 February 1885, and on several occasions later in the year.

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

26.  Socratic
Socrates (469-399 BC), Greek philosopher.

27.  commission in the Naval service
This is a wildly inaccurate summary of JW's trip to Valparaiso in 1866. It may be that the writer was confused by a memory of JW having briefly attended U. S. Military Academy, West Point, but he certainly did not graduate.

28.  trop d'esprit
Fr., too much spirit.