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on 9 March 2014
As the author Daniel E Sutherland and his publishers, Yale University Press, are keen to point out this is the first ever biography of Whistler to make "extensive" use of his private corrospondence. Really? I have in my library at least 5 books on the artist that make 'extensive' use of his private corrospondence in Glasgow University and elsewhere throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
But what is important here is not that particular claim. What is particularly unsettling is the tone set by Mr Sutherland the author at the beginning. As he warns or rather scolds his potential readers in the preface, "First, though, you need to know some things about Whistler."
Really? I really wonder then why I just bought this book.
And it gets worse. "From childhood, he [Whistler] cared passionately about art." Well that explains a lot. An artist who cared about art! Thank goodness for that.
Having followed Whistler for most of my 75 years, I have visited Glasgow's spectacular collection on many occasions, I have spent many glorious hours at the Freer Collection in Washington DC, I have had pleasure to view the great retrospectives in 1990s and the centenary shows in 2003 but with Mr Sutherland effort I utterly fail to find anything new or enlightening.
To me it seems he has simply used the magnificent achievement of the University of Glasgow's Centre for Whistler Studies online archive of Whistler Correspondence to fatten out a monologue [and monologue it is] that adds absolutely nothing to the enigma and our understanding of James McNeill Whistler.
Twenty years ago I bought the biography of Whistler by Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval. Last week out of interest, having just bought Mr Sutherland's effort, I went on to see if their book, Beyond the Myth, was still available. To my sheer delight it was and what was fascinating was it still being reviewed some twenty years later - the latest being February 2014. As one reviewer commented on Anderson and Koval's Beyond the Myth, on Amazon, it is "A superb work of art history and biography."
Mr Sutherland I see had not even the grace to acknowledge its existence.
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on 22 February 2014
James Abbot Whistler (he would add his mother’s maiden of McNeill later in his life) was born in the busy mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834 (though he would come to deny that place of birth in an attempt to remove, “the taint of Lowell” from his life when writing his biographical sketch for the American Who’s Who) to a mother whose family came from the plebeian North Carolina, (something else Whistler would deny stating that his mother’s family came from the aristocratic South Carolina).
His father George Washington Whistler was a West Point graduate and that U.S. Military Academy made him an engineer. His excellence in the field of railroad engineering brought him to the attention of Tsar Nicholas I who hired him to build a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The young Whistler spent five years in Russia and during that time his love of art bloomed. The renowned artist Sir William Allan, who was in Russia to paint the history of Peter the Great, told Whistler’s mother that her son had an “uncommon genius”.
This ‘genius’ went on to become arguably one of the most influential painters of the 19th century. Whistler was influenced over the years by many artists, notably Velasquez and Courbet, and was also influenced by Courbet’s Realism and especially Oriental art which continued to fascinate him throughout his whole life. His style of realism became known as Naturalism. However, over the years he easily moved through different styles of art and also through different mediums of art becoming an expert and an innovator in anything he done. Walter Sickert declared to a friend, “Such a man! The only painter alive who has first immense genius, then conscientious persistent work striving after his ideal”. But Whistler “espoused no doctrine, proposed no laws, even though he spoke constantly the science of art.” The important factor in art, for Whistler was ‘delicacy’ a tenderness, neatly and nicety.
Not only is this the first Whistler biography in 20 years but it is the first to make extensive use of the artist’s private correspondence. That ‘extensive use’ shines through this book like light through stained glass. The author Daniel E Sutherland has taken the chiaroscuro printed page of Whistler’s private correspondence and thrown beautiful colours onto the page in the form of wonderful insights and satisfyingly brought the artist to life to such an extent as one feels that Whistler is the room as you read.
Being a lover of art I have to admit that like most people I believed him as nothing more than a dandy, a dilettante, an egoist who ‘stole’ from other artists and created only one masterpiece, An Arrangement in Grey and Black colloquially and erroneously known as Whistler’s Mother. Thanks to Mr Sutherland my mind has now filed that belief under ‘short-sightedness’.
One of the main raison d’êtres of a literary or artistic biography is to have today’s and future generations to not only re-evaluate the biography’s subject but to instil a need to read the books or see the paintings. This biography achieves that in the proverbial spades. I have already been searching online to see which paintings can be seen in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The author has achieved a wonderful biography that has been written in a clear, comprehensive and entertaining manner. Mr Sutherland has managed to achieve that difficult task of writing a biography that is at once both entertaining and intelligent. This has to be the definitive biographical work on Whistler and I pity and writer who attempts to write one in the future. I will leave you with the words of Arthur Symons;

“He talked of art, certainly for art’s sake, with the passionate reverence of the lover, and with the joyous certainty of one who knows himself loved.”
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It’s difficult to define exactly what marks out a good biography from a bad or boring one, but you can usually tell within pages what sort any particular one is going to be. And this new and detailed biography of James McNeill Whistler is certainly one of the best biographies I have read for a while. I was hooked from the start. Meticulously researched, it’s a traditional cradle to grave account of Whistler’s life and a detailed and thorough examination of the work. The first biography of this most complex and intriguing artist for more than 20 years, it describes the man with all his faults and foibles as well as his genius, and expounds on his art in an accessible and comprehensive way. A pivotal figure in the art world, his influence was wide and far-reaching, an aspect of his career that Sutherland explains with understanding and perception. The book is clearly and succinctly written, intelligent and serious but also immensely entertaining and readable.
Sadly for me the e-book that I received for review from NetGalley didn’t have any illustrations, so I can’t comment on that aspect of the book, but I understand that there are over a 100 of them, and I look forward to seeing a hard-copy of the book to enhance my reading. However, even without illustrations I found this a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read, and felt that Sutherland really brings Whistler, his family, friends – and enemies – to life in a perceptive and thoughtful manner.
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on 30 March 2014
I selected this rating because I love art and found that the author's treatment was objective and very thorough. The author was able to bring the subject to life without idolatry. Well done.
Bruce D. Fisher
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