Turner and Whistler

In the little booklet British Painting, put out by the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), it says, “It seems curious, when looking at this vision of radiant light with its blues and golds, to realize that the painter was an uncouth boor, who lived under an assumed name in squalor with his common law wife.” Well, well. I guess that’s one way of looking at it. Considering its source, it is almost an official statement. Like most official statements it is not quite right factually, but it is an accurate reflection of a common emotional attitude.

Turner is vulgar. I think the man got it wrong way around. There was something rather aristocratic about his flaunting of polite society. Plenty of dukes have lived in squalor in big, dirty rat-infested and leaking houses as Turner did. He didn’t, most of the time, “live with” his mistress, he kept her in a cottage up the river, just like a duke. It is his paintings that are vulgar. Out of the painting of Venice in the National Gallery that prompted this remark came seventy years of chocolate boxes. Many of his romantic landscapes are even vulgarer. His water colors and graphic work are least so, but certainly their appeal is very obvious. Can good art be this common in its appeal?

Folk art is one thing — we accept its crudity as “natural” and value its simple, effective design. Naïve artists are, when good, really eccentric rather than naïve. Rousseau’s slightly daffy vision of the world can be accepted as a different reality. As styles, however absurd, pass back in time, they cross a dividing line beyond which they become less and less offensive because they are no longer reacted against by our own taste. This isn’t just up-to-dateness. Growth of the sensibility in society always rejects the immediate past and later reorganizes it in different terms, finds new values and meanings in the enduring work and forgets the rest. Styles blend together as they recede. Only trained observers can distinguish between the styles of Augustan and Hadrian Rome. Hadrian’s artists considered themselves as revolutionary as the Fauves. “Messages” are first vital, then trivial, then acquire a nostalgic evocative power. Today nineteenth-century British anecdotal painting is popular again. One of my favorite paintings is Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England. Alma-Tadema, however, for me at least, has not been lent enchantment by time. A tear dims my eye whenever I regard Henry Farny’s Song of the Talking Wire, but, closer to home, the funny-paper epics of Stanley Spencer and the WPA muralists leave me slightly nauseous.

Whistler is vulgar. He is vulgar in quite the opposite direction to Turner. He did not, to quote that catalogue, “turn his back on polite society.” He was a social lion, a drawing-room pet, almost the first of his type in modern Society. Men like Reynolds or the modern clubman Academician are not pets of Society — they are themselves Society. Whistler was not Society, he was not even a gentleman. He was, in fact, close to being an intellectual gigolo.

An artist who is a gentleman has the dignity and craft secretiveness of a skilled mechanic or a good butler. He never lets on. He never peddles spurious initiations into the mysteries of his trade. He keeps his place and expects his customers to keep theirs. The old Scripps-Howard cartoonist Williams once drew a cartoon all voluble artists should take to heart. A battered old house painter in ragged overalls and walrus mustache is mixing paint. The Milquetoast-type client, interested in future do-it-yourself projects, asks, “What’s that you’re mixing with the paint?” Says the true craftsman, “Muriatic acid, it makes the paint stick better.” Whistler taught idle women to chatter in a bad imitation of artists’ shop talk. It is the heritage of Whistler’s little ventures in high-toned Adult Education, far more than Karl Marx, which has led modern artists to refuse when asked out, and to bristle at the sight of a pulsating diamond choker.

At this date we come at both Turner and Whistler with a mass of prejudices and preformed judgments. Can we clear them away so that we can look at both without bias? Can good pictures be that pretty? Can a popinjay paint honest paintings? I think the answer to the first question is, “Yes.” The answer to the second question is, “Yes.” The third question, I am afraid, must be answered, “More or less.” Turner, in the noblest sense of the words, knew his place, and kept his mouth shut. His paintings are redeemed by something greater than taste. Whistler, who inaugurated a worship of good taste, could never quite keep his ingrained charlatanism from peeping out of even his most devoted work. It is only one step from Whistler to Aubrey Beardsley, only another to Gustave Moreau, only a third to Dali. Whistler is a dangerous artist to like.

It is good to approach Turner through a large display of his water colors. In the first place, there is the purely mechanical fact that his colors have lasted better in that medium than in his oils. Many of his large oils, especially those in America, have faded terribly. The storm at sea in the Chicago Art Institute, for instance, is about as colorful as a steel engraving. Modern taste has to learn to adjust to his Romantic bravura. This is much easier to do in the more intimate, quiet art of water color. Sheer technical mastery in oil is a little beyond the layman (the world is full of people who still think Dali is a “great craftsman”). No one was ever a greater virtuoso of water color than Turner, and this virtuosity is sufficiently apparent to anyone who has never touched a brush, and is, as in the ink painters of the Far East, a delight in itself. Last, and most important, unless you moved an appreciable part of the Tate Gallery across the Atlantic, it would be quite impossible to organize an exhibition which would show Turner’s steady development from picturesque landscape to what today we call abstract painting.

Arranged chronologically, water colors like the Mer de Glace, Snowstorm on Mt. Cenis, St. Goar on the Rhine, Tell’s Chapel, Lake Lucerne show the steady growth of abstract considerations and the dwindling of picturesque detail. In each one it is necessary to mask a smaller and smaller area of representation and anecdote to obtain pure vortexes of light, cloud, wind and rock. Even in a painting like Mt. Cenis, the horses and wagons are there to give scale and set the drama. Eventually these effects are achieved by “painterly” means, and, in the last great water colors, even scale ceases to function. Like much recent painting, they depend on their own local space — the direct action of paint on paper.

It is doubtful if Turner knew much of anything about Far Eastern art. About all he could have seen was bric-a-brac and bijouterie. Yet, of all modern artists, he is closest to the great painters of China and Japan. Even the dim river scene Mainz, completely within the European tradition and painted rather early on, has the same feeling as the ink scrolls of the misty Yang-tse Kiang. Late paintings like Tell’s Chapel, Lake Lucerne pass beyond even the ink-blot “discipline-of-occasion” tours de force of Sesshu and his disciples. This is organic painting of a new kind, dynamic, saturated space, all the forces of which are related like the strains and stresses, the vacuoles, vortices and pseudopods which make up the living processes of an amoeba.

In his life Turner was equally un-Western European. He was a totally devoted craftsman and a modest, unpretentious visionary. His mistresses were illiterate and housewifely. Their neighbors thought he was a retired sea captain. He and his father ran his career like a small but very successful business. He tried to hang on to all his best work, and when he died he left everything to his fellow countrymen. Remote heirs broke his will.

Whistler was not just immodest, he was shamelessly vain. His most conscientious portraits, of his mother and of Carlyle, are really Fantin-Latour, slightly flavored with Vermeer. He gave them ridiculously pretentious titles. They are not Arrangements in Grey and Black at all, they are just good, workmanlike portraits. Arrangements of Rose and Silver is no such thing, it is a studio portrait of a model in a kimono — a particularly exciting form of cheesecake in those days. Neither is it La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine. It is hard to understand how Whistler could look at so much Japanese art and talk so much about it and have such trouble seeing it. Arrangement in Black is simply a portrait of Sarasate with his fiddle, painted in a combination of the styles of Velasquez, van Dyck and Fantin-Latour. Re-do it in slashing brush work and you have Sargent. So it goes. There is nothing wrong with these paintings — except Whistler’s lamentable inability to keep still.

Perhaps the best are the Symphonies in White and the other color-music jobs which are really exercises in a peculiar, weak, etiolated, precocious sexuality. They are very odd people, the Victorians. More went on than ever met the public eye. These weary children are not as rough as Lolita, but they are every bit as perverse. One step back, the sick nymphomaniacs of Rossetti and the mawkish boys of Burne-Jones, one step ahead, the silly brothel decorations of Aubrey Beardsley. Whistler’s girls are far better, because they are convincing. Looking at them we not only know they once really existed, but we can extrapolate the whole world which produced them. This is no small virtue. But they are not Symphonies.

Face to face with the Nocturnes it is necessary to draw a deep breath. Whistler thought of them as transmitting the inspiration of Hiroshige and Hokusai. They do not. Those artists were gentlemen craftsmen, much like Turner. Both of them had an accurate and knowing eye and uncannily steady hands. Both were even more vulgar than Turner. Whistler’s Nocturnes are all annoyingly imprecise. Where is the man standing on that barge? This is not calligraphy — it is just careless drawing. For once I think he was right in his choice of titles. These paintings have the same emotional vagueness, patchouli-scented sentiment and etiolated virtuosity as the less admirable piano works of that diseased and neurotic Pole. Once again, like the oddly sexy girls, these are fashionable paintings, embodiments of the most chic vapors of a bygone day.

Does this mean that Whistler is all bad? No. It just means that it requires a kind of censorship of the sensibility to appreciate him. Like highbrow movies, we have to be always on guard not to be taken in. And like highbrow movies, we have to be on guard in a special way — this is our kind of corn, designed specifically to take in just our caste. In Whistler, at least, it is sufficiently dated so that we can recognize it and perform the necessary surgery.

This leaves us with little more than an entertaining afternoon of sophisticated nostalgia, like three hours spent with Traviata or The Merry Widow. Some artists, of all periods, are inexhaustible in history. Whole art movements will be indebted to them for centuries to come. With Whistler we can only come away saying wryly, “Curious, life was like that once, at least for some people.”



This essay originally appeared in Art News (November 1960). It was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961) and in World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Copyright 1960. Reproduced here by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Other Rexroth Essays