In his beautifully illustrated and deeply human portrayal of the artist, Daniel E. Sutherland shows why Whistler was perhaps the most influential artist of his generation, and certainly a pivotal figure in the cultural history of the nineteenth century. Whistler comes alive through his own magnificent work and words, including the provocative manifestos that explained his bold artistic vision, sparked controversy in his own time, and resonate to this day.
Whistler, who produced 2,700 paintings, drawings, etchings and lithographs, became famous for producing inventive, non-traditional works of art, which “kept him a step ahead of his contemporaries,” Sutherland said.
“Whistler had a reputation as a ‘painter’s painter,’ someone who only another painter really understood. Other artists understood him and sympathized,” he said. “But that was a relatively small circle. He would destroy paintings for which people would have paid him a lot of money, because they didn’t match his image of what he was trying to do. In his ‘painter’s eye,’ he had a vision. He would demand 50 or 60 sittings for portraits. He would start and the sitter would come back the next day and see that the canvas was blank again. He just hadn’t captured what he wanted to do.”
While he privately doubted himself and became obsessed with artistic perfection, Whistler engaged in activities that cultivated a celebrated public life. In fact, Whistler was one of the first people referred to as a “celebrity” by newspapers in the late 19th century, Sutherland said. Whistler feuded with the eminent art critic John Ruskin, suing Ruskin in court for libel after a bad review. He had a public falling out with Oscar Wilde. He titled his autobiography The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.
“Whistler was one of the first modern artists to understand the value of publicizing themselves, how making his name known to the public was really going to make people more interested in his work,” Sutherland said. “He was a master at marketing in that way. He would often talk about himself in the third person, like a modern sports figure. It was a purposeful façade that he created.
“He would also write anonymous notices in the newspapers,” Sutherland said. “For example, he would write, ‘We saw Mr. Whistler in Venice today and he was working on this marvelous set of etchings.’ He would give a talk and write an anonymous review of his speech: ‘What a wonderful job Mr. Whistler did, and how appreciative the crowd was.’ He was such a character.”