Documents associated with: Weir, Robert Walter
Record 9 of 9
System Number: 02437
Date: [1/20 December 1897]
Author: Gustav Kobbé
Place: [New York?]
Repository: Glasgow University Library
Call Number: MS Whistler K20
Document Type: TsD
WHISTLER AT WEST POINT AND IN THE U. S. COAST SURVEY.
Two Americans, distinguished in the wholly unmilitary professions of literature and art, Poe and Whistler, were cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Neither finished the course. The career there of Poe, than whom no American author has been more widely written of, has been fully exploited; but few people are aware of even the mere fact that Whistler ever was a cadet at West Point; and, so far as I know, nothing has ever been printed about his life there. Yet he was then already such an original and distinctive figure that classmates who have not seen him for over forty years have the liveliest recollections of him.
Not only was his artistic genius already clearly in evidence but he was also noted for his smart sayings and for certain personal eccentricities which only a genius could have carried off successfully. In fact, the cadet Whistler was, in a most striking way, the precursor, artistically and intellectually, of the Whistler of to-day. And the Whistler of to-day is a picturesque and original personality in the world of art, gifted with an ability quite unexcelled by any one in his own profession (or out of it for that matter) for [p. 2] clever mots which run the gamut from the sportive and whimsical to the satirical, yet are always Whistlerian. Indeed I doubt if the youth was ever more prophetic of the man than in Whistler's case, a fact which gives special interest to the reminiscences which I have obtained from several of his classmates.
Whistler was 17 years old when he entered West Point, July 1, 1851. As the end of the first year he stood 42 in a class of 52 members: At the end of the second year (June, 1853) he was absent, sick and not examined, except in drawing, in which he stood first in a class of 43 members; being, however examined and passed in his other studies later. At the end of the third year (June 1854) he was found deficient in chemistry and discharged.
The above official data are furnished me by Whistler's classmate, C. S. Breck, now Assistant Adjutant general, U. S. A., who adds this general description of Whistler at that time:
"He was small and slight of build and always at work on something with pen, pencil or brush; and his ability in this direction excited admiration among his comrades. He was always ready for fun, was skilful at repartee, had much wit and was always talking. He was lazy about his studies, but appeared to have plenty of ability to have graduated from the academy if he had applied himself."
Brevet Major General Alexander S. Webb, U. S. A. [p. 3] (retired), now President of the College of the City of New York, who has furnished the two cadet drawing made and given to him by Whistler, while they were classmates at West Point, was himself much interested in drawing, ranked second to Whistler in art and occupied the desk next to him. General Webb tells me an anecdote which shows that Whistler, besides commanding the admiration of his brother cadets, was not lacking in self-appreciation.
In the art class one day, while Whistler was busy over an India ink drawing of a French peasant girl, the elder Weir, then professor of art at the United States Military Academy, walked as usual from desk to desk examining the pupils' work. After looking over Whistler's shoulder, he stepped back to his own desk, filled his brush with India ink (General Webb says he can see him now rubbing the paint on a plate and "loading" his brush) and approached Whistler with a view of correcting some of the lines in the latter's drawing. When Whistler saw him approaching, he raised his hands as if to ward off the strokes of the brush and called out: "Oh don't, sir, don't! You'll spoil it!"
This was dangerously near to insubordination, but Professor Weir merely smiled and walked back to his desk without making the intended corrections.
General Webb tells another capital anecdote illustrative of Whistler's mental audacity in getting himself out of a disagreeable predicament. There was at that time, in addition [p. 4] to the regular cadet mess, a private mess for twelve at the house of an army officer's widow. Whistler was one of the twelve. One day the cadets conceived the idea of having a little sport at their landlady's expense. The first cadet who came to table said, as he sat down: "Good morning, Mrs. - There is a cat on the roof of your house." The second cadet repeated the remark except that he varied it by saying: "There are two cats on the roof of your house." Each cadet added a cat until, when Whistler, who was the last to arrive sat down, he said: "Good morning, Mrs. -, there are twelve cats on the roof of your house."
At dinner, Whistler, whom the landlady rightly suspected of having instigated the joke, found under his napkin a billet notifying him that his presence at the mess was no longer desired. Being, however, averse to returning to the general mess Whistler, after dinner, planted himself in front of a portrait of the landlady's husband which hung in the parlor and appeared lost in admiration of it. When he heard the widow entering, he began descanting, as if to himself, yet loud enough for her to hear, upon the virtues of the deceased, winding up with this exclamation: "To think that West Point should have produced such a man and that we have his portrait here to remind us of what we ourselves may attain to!"
This touched the widow so deeply that he was reinstated in her good graces and - the mess.
General Webb also says that it was not wholly unusual [p. 5] at cavalry drill for Whistler to go over his horse's head; whereupon Major Sackett, who succeeded Major (now General) Fitz-John Porter in command, would call out:
"Mr. Whistler, aren't you a little ahead of the squad?"
Adjutant General George D. Ruggles, U. S. A., who was perhaps Whistler's most intimate friend among the latter's West Point classmates, fully agrees with General Breck that Whistler's failure to pass in chemistry was not due to lack of ability. Indeed General Ruggles's story of Whistler's attempt to pull himself together and his success so far as the final examination was concerned shows what he might have accomplished had he applied himself as diligently to his general studies as he did to art.
"He was," writes General Ruggles, "one of the brightest men in our class; but he was as indolent and careless as he was brilliant. He managed by his wits alone, and not by study, to pass the first two years and a half of the course. On the home stretch, the last six months of the third or junior year, his instructor in chemistry felt that he had been so derelict as a student, that he should be found deficient and discharged. Whistler, obtaining an inkling of this, applied himself to his studies in chemistry and really becomes proficient, and passed an excellent examination in June; but the average of his mark was so low, that it threw him below others who were really more deficient on the finals yet averaged [p. 6] higher; and so he went by the board in the general destruction.
"After he left the Academy I had a few letters from him, but, from his indolence of habit, he soon ceased to write to me and I have had no communication with him now for nearly 43 years. He became, as I remember, a Bohemian, immediately upon leaving the academy. In one of his early letters, he remarked that he was living in a garret, making a few sketches; that he cooked his own breakfast, and dined and supped with his friends. He was well-read in light literature, and he had a very keen sense of the ridiculous. In the recitation room, at church, and almost anywhere, the ridiculous incidents of a situation would strike him and he would sketch, in a second or two, cartoons full of character and displaying the utmost nicety of appreciation of its ludicrous points. He was short-sighted and short of limb."
General Ruggles sends me three characteristic and most amusing anecdotes of Whistler at this time, one of them also referring to his habit of parting company with his horse during drill. In the first mounted drill in the riding academy in which he took part Whistler had a hard horse. The instructor walked the squad around the hall, then trotted it, and then gave the command: Trot out!"
At this last command Whistler, who had journeyed from the withers of the horse to its croup and back again several times, finally tumbled in a bundle into the tan-bark. He lay for a moment without movement. The dragoon soldiers, who [p. 7] imagined him seriously injured, ran to him and picked him up to carry him to the hospital. He told them to let him down. Major Porter, who was in command of the instruction, called to him from his horse: "Mr Whistler, are you hurt?"
Whistler, drawing off his gauntlet and brushing the tan-bark away from his hips downward, replied: "No. Major. But I do not understand how any man can keep a trotting horse for his own amusement!"
There was in the squad, a horse named Quaker. This horse was crazy, as some horses are. He had run away time and again, had thrown the most expert riders in the cavalry detachment, and had hurled one sergeant high in the air, to descend upon the roof of the stable with broken bones and a broken nose. One day, as the cadets took their places in the riding hall, this horse Quaker fell to Whistler. Whistler, coming up blinking with his myopia, said: "Dragoon, what horse is this?" The soldier answered: "Quaker, sir;" and Whistler replied: "My God! He's no friend."
Upon another occasion Whistler, who was running a tangent to dismissal on demerit, was found with a pair of boots in his possession. Now boots were not uniform, and so were prohibited. The barrack regulations required that cadets whouls [sic] have the lower quarter uniform shoes; that they should be arranged under the foot of the bedstead with their toes on a line, and that they should be neatly blacked.
Whistler, having obtained the boots for use in deep [p. 8] snows in his nocturnal and, of course, prohibited expeditions, had carelessly left them unhidden, and had actually displayed them with his uniform shoes at the foot of his iron bedstead. He was reported for having boots in his possession, for boots not blacked, and boots not in position. These three reports carried with them very considerable demerit, and were almost sufficient to dismiss him.
He was not required to write an excuse, or, as it is now called, and explanation; but he could not resist the opportunity. He wrote a long dissertation to the Commandant upon boots and shoes in general, and then, coming down to the particular case in hand, he spoke of the condition of his demerit and the sad misfortune that had befallen upon him; winding up with the remark: "But, in this case, as it is adding but a little to the whole, what boots it?" For this he was reported for writing an improper excuse and received more demerit still.
"As you may remember," writes General Ruggles, "his father, George Washington Whistler, who was a graduate of West Point and for some years an officer in the United States army, was the engineer who built the early Russian railroads. Young Whistler was with him at the time and often went to court and played with the imperial children. In Russia and France he acquired the habits and manners of a European. He was an American, but he seemed more like a Frenchman."
Two of Whistler's most amusing sayings contain im-[p. 9]putations upon nature. In some disdainful remarks about tourists he spoke of their admiration for "singularly foolish sunsets;" and once, when a lady exclaimed enthusiastically: "Oh, Mr Whistler, I came down the Thames this morning and the scenery was so beautiful it reminded me of a series of your etchings!" he replied: "Yes, Madam, nature is looking up." Of a similar character was his remark, when he learned that he had been found deficient in chemistry. It is sent to me by his classmate, William W. Averell, Assistant Inspector General, U.S.A. General Averell gives a lively and entertaining account of Whistler's personality, closing with the anecdote to which I have referred:
"Whistler," writes General Averell, "was unique, not only because there was no like him in our class, but, also because he had no equal in art or in the quick and vivid perception and appreciation of the best literature - especially that in which the humorous and pathetic phases of life might be mostly found. Dickens was his nearest favorite and he reveled in Hudibras and Dr. Syntax.
There was nothing heavy about any part of his presentment - physical or mental. He was light and airy in every expression or action, and impulsive. He was a constant surprise. Nothing would hold him still and quiet except his art when he had become engaged in any original effort. Even then he would wriggle and twist about his work like an animated interrogation point.
[p. 10] He was remarkably near-sighted and his eyes were within a hand's length of the paper when he was drawing in pencil, ink or water-colors. This defective vision caused astonishing novel effects in his colors - harmonious and beautiful, but unnatural to the normal eye. This abnormal vision may have influenced his work in after years and given rise to the "Nocturnes" and "Symphonies" - different tones of a single color, which occasioned his controversy with Ruskin.
One could never expect anything serious from Whistler. When he was found deficient in chemistry and was asked about the difficulty, he replied, laughingly, with an implied reproach upon nature: "Oh, it was because silicon was not a gas."
Whistler was discharged from West Point in June 1854; in January 1855 he received an appointment in the drawing division of the United States Coast Survey at Washington where he was employed for two months. The office records show that he worked six and half days in the early part of January and five and three-quarter days in February for which he received a compensation of $18.95 at the rate of $1.50 per day. He lodged in the house which still stands at the northeast corner of E and 12th streets, N. W., a two story brick building with attic. He occupied a plainly but comfortably furnished room such as could then have been rented for about ten dollars a month.
The first work done by Whistler for the Coast Survey was an etching of a view of Ancapa Island in Santa Barbara [p. 11] channel, off the coast of California. The view covers only part of the plate, the balance being a map of the island etched by two other employees of the Survey. His second piece of work led to a reprimand and soon afterward he left the Survey. In fact, according to some, he was not only reprimanded but dismissed. This second plate was a map with two views and Whistler's offense consisted in having filled the spaces between the map and the views with fancy sketches of heads. This has long been one of the current anecdotes about Whistler and is given by Wedmore in the notes to his catalogue of Whistler's etchings. The plate, however, was supposed to be lost and no print of it known to exist. But a few weeks prior to this writing Mr J. R. Key, of Chicago, who was an employee of the Coast Survey in Whistler's day and to whom Whistler gave the plate after it had been rejected, offered it to a picture firm in whose possession it now is. This firm supposed it to be Whistler's first plate until I showed them the Anacapa view which must, of course, have been etched before the one for which he was reprimanded, as he either left the Coast Survey office or was dismissed in consequence of the incident. I think I can claim that I have discovered Whistler's first plate For forty-two years the prints made from it have been buried in a Government report; it is not mentioned in any catalogue of Whistler's etchings; and it seems to have been wholly unknown to collectors. The plate is in the possession of the United States and Geodetic Survey and is in good condi-[p. 12]tion. It was found in a thorough search, made upon my application for information in regard to any work which Whistler might have done for the Survey.
The map of Anacapa Island with Whistler's etching of the view of part of the island is sent me by Mr. A. Lindenkohl who was an employee of the Coast Survey at the time Whistler was connected with it, and still is. Mr. Lindenkohl has also written out for me his reminiscences of Whistler. Characteristic and amusing is his account of an early morning visit to Whistler's lodgings, made at the suggestion of the superintendent of the Coast Survey, with the purpose of impressing the happy-go-lucky employee of the drawing division with the importance of punctuality.
"I remember J. N. Whistler very well at the time when he was connected with the Drawing Division of the Coast Survey, in January and February, 1855," writes Mr. Lindenkohl. "As I remember him, possessed of an elegant figure with an abundance of black curly hair, soft lustrous eyes, finely cut features, fair complexion, well-shaped hands and a graceful tournure, I thought him about the handsomest fellow I ever met, but for some reasons I did not consider him a perfect model of manly beauty, - his mouth betokened more ease than firmness, his brow more reverie than acute mental activity, and his eyes more depth than penetration. Sensitiveness and animation appeared to be his predominating traits.
"At the time of his appearance in the office, the [p. 13] most important charges were filled by military officers, graduates of West Point, and an almost perfect military control was maintained; punctuality and regularity of attendance, particularly, were strictly enforced. Although Whistler would come and go when he pleased, no attempt whatsoever was made, as far as I am aware, to induce him to comply with existing rules and regulations and I suppose that, from what the authorities knew of his disposition and antecedents, they considered it perfectly useless to try to influence his actions. I am sure that his disregard of rules did not proceed from any motives of spite or disrespect; I have found him polite and in good humor at all times; but I believed that it was the result of a certain disposition toward indolence which had been rather fostered than checked by early education together with an unlimited assertion of individual responsibility or freedom, engendered by association and affiliation with artists.
"Captain Benham who was then in charge of the office took occasion to tell me that he felt great interest in the young man, not only on account of his talents but also on account of his father who was his particular friend, a graduate of West Point and a distinguished civil engineer; and he furthermore told me that he would be highly pleased if I could induce Whistler to be more regular in his attendance. 'Call at his lodgings on your way to the office,' he said, 'and see if you can't bring him along.'
"Accordingly one morning I called at Whistler's lodgings [p. 14] at half past eight. No doubt, he felt somewhat astonished at this early intrusion, but received me with the greatest bonhomie, invited me to make myself at home and promised to make all possible haste to comply with my wishes. Nevertheless he proceeded with the greatest deliberation and to rise from his couch and put himself into shape for the street and prepare his breakfast which consisted of a cup of strong coffee brewed in a steam tight French machine which was then a novelty; and he also insisted upon treating me with a cup of coffee. We made no extra haste on our way to the office which we reached about half past ten - an hour and a half after time. I did not repeat the experiment.
"Although he was equally skillful with the etching needle, pen and brush, he had an aversion to any kind of employment which had the taint of machine work and which did not allow him the free introduction of artistic touches. His imagination seemed to be constantly at work creating pictures and an instinctive impulse seemed to guide him to commit these impressions to paper before they vanished.
"He was skilful in sketching landscapes and I remember a pretty little sketch of the old arsenal at Greenleaf's Point which he sketched from the Coast Survey windows and which was highly prized as a keepsake by a fellow employee; but I think he took greater delight in sketching the human figures of the grotesque type, such as knights, monks, beggars, etc., and was especially interested in the arrangement and folds of the [p. 15] garments. I remember that he showed me several examples done with the brush in sepia in old French or Spanish style but have forgotten whether these were his own compositions or copies."
General Breck, whom I have already quoted above, sends me the story of an occurrence during Whistler's sojourn in Washington. The Russian minister had been very kind and polite to him and, desiring to reciprocate, Whistler invited him to dinner. The invitation was accepted and Whistler said he would call in a carriage at the appointed time, which he did. As they were driving off Whistler asked the minister if he would object to his stopping at a store on the way, to which the minister replied that he would not. After stopping, Whistler returned to the carriage with several paper bundles and resumed his very entertaining conversation. Presently he asked the minister if he would mind stopping a moment at the market. This was acceded to, and more paper parcels were added to the collection. They then drove to a lodging house, and Whistler taking his paper bundles, conducted the minister to a room in the attic, where he invited him to a seat in a comfortable chair in a cosy corner. Having requested further permission, he pulled out a gas stove and the necessary saucepans, etc., etc., and cooked and served an excellent dinner, with an appropriate accompaniment of wines of approved vintage, coffee and cigars. During the proceedings, Whistler kept up a running conversation of wit, humor and comment on his proceedings, telling the minister by way of explanation that [p. 16] he had not the money to give him a handsome entertainment as he would like to, and as the next best thing, gave something of his own device. At the conclusion of the affair he sent his guest home in a carriage.
It is doubtful if the Russian minister was ever, during his sojourn in Washington, entertained in a more original manner or by a more brilliant host.
The reminiscences of Whistler's West Point classmates and of Mr. Lindenkohl refer to a period when he was between 17 and 21 years old. Except in degree Whistler's temperament seems about the same as it was in his youth.
1. [1/20 December 1897]
Dated from the letter from R. Gilder to JW on 27 January 1898, in which he wrote that 'some time ago we forwarded to you a copy of an article by Mr. Gustav Kobbé.' (#00574). The article was also mentioned by E. R. Pennell on 21 December 1897, #08194.
This is probably the copy sent by Richard Watson Gilder (1844-1909), editor of The Century Magazine from 1881 [more] (via Joseph Pennell (1860-1926), printer and illustrator, JW's biographer [more]) for JW's approval (see Gilder to JW, op. cit., #00574). The article was not published in the Century, but appeared in The Chapbook: Kobbé, Gustave, 'Whistler at West Point,' The Chap Book, VIII, no. 11, 15 April 1898, pp. 439-42 [GM, K.23].
Charles Dickens (1812-1870), novelist, journalist and essayist [more]. JW frequently took works by Dickens from the West Point Library, and made illustrations of Dickensian scenes, such as Sir John Chester (M.56); Captain Cuttle (M.147); Mr Pecksniff, blown out (Pelouze's Album, p. 62) (M.88); Sam Weller and Mary fold a carpet (M.135); Mrs Tupman and the fat boy (M.144); Sam Weller's Landlord in the Fleet (M.145). See also Fleming, Gordon, The Young Whistler 1834-66, London, Boston, Sydney, 1978.
15. Hudibras and Dr Syntax
Samuel Butler Page (1612-1680), was the author of Hudibras, a satirical poem written in Chaucerian couplets between 1660 and 1680. Hudibras, a colonel in the Cromwellian army, is involved in various misadventures and is shown as stupid, greedy and dishonest. Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), joined with the poet William Combe (1741-1823), to engrave and publish a three volume series of satirical aquatints of the Tours of Dr Syntax (1809-1821). It was a parody of the Rev. William Gilpin as a bumbling clergyman. It was very popular and frequently reprinted.
20. Mr J. R. Key
John Ross Key (1837-1920), a colleague of JW at the U. S. Coast Survey Office in Washington DC [more], who was drawn by JW: Portrait of John Ross Key (M.203). See his letter to C. L. Freer, [15 February 1896], #11723.
24. Russian minister