THE most persuasive champion of “art for art’s sake” 1n the nineteenth cen
tury was Whistler, an expatriate American who thrived in the cosmopolitan
atmosphere of Europe.
Like a born Frenchman, he affiliated himself with the
superior painters of Paris, and was constantly before the public as exhibitor,
irritant of the old guard, and spokesman for a new school of artists busily
With an incorrigible lust for battle, he opened a studio in
London where he won exorbitant publicity by his eccentricities and his con
Armed with a piercing intelligence and a dialectical weapon that was
specious and deadly, Whistler erected a captivating philosophy of art, and
confirmed his ideas by the most scrupulous application to his craft.
He became the rightful leader of an esthetic coterie numbering, among its apostles,
Swinburne, Beardsley, and Oscar Wilde-with a fellowship for Walter Pater;
and he antagonized the patriots by announcing that the true artist was above
the insularity of nationalism, and exempt from the social codes governing
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It was a vainglorious world that he dominated-a world
of conceits and studied attitudes-but Whistler was no charlatan. He had the
courage of his convictions, and no painter labored more steadfastly to acquire
the technical perfection which, to him, was the end of art.
Whistler’s life and art were consciously ordered to conform to his fastidious
tastes. He tells no story in his pictures and points no moral-he stakes every
thing on his taste, his supersensitivity,
and his tact-on the faultless balance
between his subject and the niceties of tone. Influenced by Velasquez and the
Japanese, he commanded, with exquisite perception, an art which, in his own
words, “was the result of harmonies obtained by employing the infinite tones
and varieties of a limited number of colors.”
It is a fragile art, but in its
own sphere indefectible. He added musical titles to his pictures, and growing
more and more exacting, painted “nocturnes” in which, to all but the most
vigilant observers, the attenuated delicacies of tone are invisible.
piece is The Little White Girl, painted in the early sixties and bearing the sec
ondary label Symphony in TPhite. In its pattern of light tones, the azalea
blooms, and the fan, it attests the Japanese print; but the arrangement is
Whistler’s own, and the wistful humanity-which he disclaimed-justifies the
purely abstract, or symphonic perfection, he advised the public to find in it.