The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Documents associated with: japanese art
Record 1 of 10

System Number: 11425
Date: [6 June 1888][1]
Author: JW
Place: [London]
Recipient: Algernon Charles Swinburne[2]
Place: [London]
Repository: Published
Document Type: PL[3]

"Et tu, Brute!"[4]

Why, O brother! did you not consult with me before printing, in the face of a ribald world, that you also misunderstand, and are capable of saying so, with vehemence and repetition?

Have I then left no man on his legs? - and have I shot down the singer in the far off, when I thought him safe at my side?

Cannot the man who wrote Atalanta - and the Ballads[5] beautiful, - can he not be content to spend his life with his work, which should be his love, - and has for him no misleading doubt and darkness - that he should so stray about blindly in his brother's flowerbeds and bruise himself!

Is life then so long with him, and his art so short, that he shall dawdle by the way and wander from his path, reducing his giant intellect - garrulous upon matters to him unknown, that the scoffer may rejoice and the Philistine be appeased while he [p. 2] takes up the parable of the mob and proclaims himself their spokesman and fellow-sufferer? O Brother! where is thy sting! O Poet! where is thy victory!

How have I offended! and how shall you in the midst of your poisoned page hurl with impunity the boomerang rebuke? "Paradox is discoloured by personality, and merriment is distorted by malevolence."

Who are you, deserting your Muse, that you should insult my Goddess with familiarity, and the manners of approach common to the reasoners in the market-place. "Hearken to me," you cry, "and I will point out how this man, who has passed his life in her worship, is a tumbler and a clown of the booths - how he who has produced that which I fain must acknowledge - is a jester in the ring!

Do we not speak the same language? Are we strangers, then, or, in our Father's house are there so many mansions that you lose your way, my brother, and cannot recognize your kin?

Shall I be brought to the bar by my own blood, and be borne false witness against before the plebeian people? Shall I be made to stultify myself by what I never said - and shall the strength of your testimony turn upon me? "If" - "If Japanese Art is right in confining itself to what can be broidered upon the [p. 3] fan" .... and again .... "that he really believes the highest expression of his art to be realized in reproduction of the grin and glare, the smirk and leer" .... and further .... "the theory which condemns high art, under the penalty of being considered intelligent, to remain eternally on the grin" .... and much more!

"Amateur writer!" Well should I deserve the reproach, had I ventured ever beyond the precincts of my own science - and fatal would have been the exposure, as you, with heedless boldness, have unwittingly proven.

Art tainted with philanthropy - that better Art result! - Poet and Peabody[6]!

You have been misled - you have mistaken the pale demeanour and joined hands for an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual earnestness. For you, these are the serious ones, and, for them, you others are the serious matter. Their joke is their work. For me - why should I refuse myself the grim joy of this grotesque tragedy - and, with them now, you all are my joke!

[butterfly signature]

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1.  [6 June 1888]
Date of first publication.

2.  Algernon Charles Swinburne
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), poet and critic [more]. This relates to Swinburne's review of JW's 'Ten O'Clock Lecture' which had recently been published in the Fortnightly Review. See Swinburne, Algernon Charles, 'Mr Whistler's Lecture on Art,' Fortnightly Review, vol. 43, no. 258, (new series), 1 June 1888, vol. 49, (old series), pp. 745-51.

3.  PL
JW's initial reply (#09459) was published in the World (Whistler, James McNeill, [Letter to Swinburne, Sent to 'Atlas'], The World: A Journal For Men and Women, no. 727, vol. 28, 6 June 1888, p. 17). This reply was later published in Whistler, James McNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 2nd ed., London and New York, 1892, pp. 259-61. See also draft, #05628.

4.  Et tu Brute
Lat., Even you, Brutus; a famous quotation from William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, act 3, sc. 1, l. 76. Caesar says this while being stabbed to death, having recognized his friend Brutus among the assassins. The phrase is used to express surprise and dismay at the treachery of a supposed friend.

5.  Atalanta - and the Ballads
Swinburne, Algernon Charles, Atalanta in Calydon: a Tragedy, London, 1865, and Poems and Ballads, London, 1866.

6.  Peabody
A reference to George Peabody (1795-1869), banker and philanthropist [more]. Peabody was much honoured for his philanthropic work in London and America. While he was known for establishing the Southern Education Fund to combat the devastation caused to Southern families by the American Civil War, in London, Peabody was also associated with reformers such as Lord Shaftesbury, William Cobbett, Richard Cobden and Angela Burdett-Coutts who supported the Union. JW's choice of Peabody as a symbolic figure may therefore have had some personal resonance.