Art For Art’s Sake

You gotta love James McNeill Whistler. As the pretentious art establishment attempted – and still attempts to this day – to analyze the “meanings” of paintings, Whistler would have none of it. A staunch proponent of “art for art’s sake”, the American expatriate artist thought the dissection and deconstruction of his work nothing more than a pointless, pompous exercise.

Whistler’s grievance was that art had long been thought to serve a purpose–  a moral, social, or political function of some sort. An artist began a painting for a specific, understood objective. The end result would represent maybe a religious narrative, an historical event, a mythological tale, or perhaps even a psychological exploration into the human condition. To create art merely for “art’s sake” was virtually unheard of or not taken seriously, that is until Whistler and some of his 19th century cohorts promoted what is known as the Aesthetic Movement.

Why not simply create a painting because you want to? Because the subject matter is intriguing to you? Because it inspires you? Because it will be beautiful? Can’t such a creation possess it’s own intrinsic value? Shouldn’t the expression of the artist’s own personal vision, disentangled from the public’s expectations, be enough to qualify as “art”? Whistler vehemently believed so. Indeed, much of the art prior to Whistler’s day carried a lot of baggage, or as Whistler called it, “claptrap” . The time had come for artists to achieve true freedom – the freedom to create without obligation of any kind, without the burden of messages and morals and social acceptance. Without all that complicated, weighty “meaning” stuff. The pursuit of beauty was enough.

I also think that Whistler was rebelling against the idea that works of art belonged to the public or were created to satisfy the public’s sensibilities. But the reality is that an artist can be motivated by any number of things. I know just from my own experience as a model, that artists often create work to explore certain visual aspects of painting – spatial relationships, composition, tonal contrasts, form, line, etc. Whistler, for example, was interested in experimenting with limited color palettes, as many of his works are titled “Harmony in Blue”, “Symphony in Green”, “Red and Black”, “Pearl and Silver”, and so on. In other words, an artist can create art for whatever reason they damn well want.

But the art establishment refused to cooperate with Whistler’s philosophy. Nowhere was this more evident than in the debut of his famous work The White Girl or Symphony in White No. 1.

The model was Whistler’s muse and companion Joanna Hiffernan, a strong-willed Irish-born beauty with a mane of thick long hair and fair skin. (More on Jo in another post). She stands dressed in white against a white drapery backdrop, her face expressionless, her stance somewhat stiff. Predictably, the painting was rejected by the notoriously uptight and conventional Paris Salon of 1863. But it was eventually shown at the Salon des Refusés.

Critics were perplexed by the piece and went wild with their “interpretations”. Certainly the white dress represented a virginal woman, right? But did the bear skin rug suggest a ruined virgin? An innocent girl who had been ravaged? Yes, many of them jumped in the “lost innocence” bandwagon. Or was she a bride on her wedding day? You know, because she is holding a flower? Was it an allegory? Surely there was some story, some narrative behind the scene. Actually there wasn’t, but still it kept going. Other critics assumed she represented the heroine in a previously published novel by Wilkie Collins titled “The Woman in White”. But Whistler had no idea what they were talking about and was irritated by the comparison. He had neither read nor even heard of the book.

What did it mean? What did the painting MEAN????? The speculation and deconstruction persisted. They came up with every possible interpretation except for the correct one which is explained succinctly in Whistler’s own words: “My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of white curtain”. Well. There you have it 🙂

12 thoughts on “Art For Art’s Sake

  1. I don’t know a thing about the Aesthetics people, but your description makes it sound like they went overboard with the idea, the way the Impressionists did with their color dogma. Of course people read meaning into paintings, especially ones of real-looking people in real-looking places. A story is necessarily implied. So what they’re saying, it sounds like, is “I’m going to ignore all that” – well, you can do that, but the natural process of looking for narrative, and seeing it, will go on among viewers. If they were rebelling against paintings over-freighted with narrative, then their alternative is just as absurd; if narrative interpretation is a given, then ignoring it is a choice, not a reformation – and planning for it is another choice. I actually think Whistler is lying, because he’s a curmudgeon and he has an axe to grind. I think he knows damn well that a story is implied, even if he’s rather vague about what it is. Anyhow, I love Whistler. If you ever want to borrow the book of him trading scathing insults with his critics, I have a copy. Parts of it are hilarious.

    • artmodel says:


      That books sounds like a great read! Whistler mixed it up with a lot of people.

      I like your analysis and I agree that looking for narrative is a natural response when viewing paintings. I think, though, that Whistler was talking about the artist’s intention – or “planning” like you said – more than the resulting feedback which can’t be controlled. In the case of Symphony in White, Whistler probably just wanted to experiment with the white palette and nothing more. And yes, he was definitely a curmudgeon!

      Thanks for your great comments, Daniel!


  2. Kimberly Adams says:

    I do agree with this approach to art. Trying to infuse it with meaning takes away from its inherent nature. This particular picture reminds me of a pose I did, draped, for an artist taking reference photos. I was wearing white clothing and sitting in front of a white curtain, but the two shades of white were different in a complementary way that struck me as so beautiful. I don’t know if she wound up using the photo for a painting but I hope she did. By the way, my blog address is and I’m linking yours to mine now! Happy modeling…

    • artmodel says:


      The blog looks great!! Thanks for the link 🙂

      I like your story about your pose with the fabrics. I’ve had similar experiences so I know exactly what you mean. I think whistler would understand too!


  3. Bill says:

    As a model, Whistler would have driven you crazy — he insisted that the painting had to be completed in one sitting. If he didn’t like it at the end of the session, he’d wipe the whole thing out and start over the next time. As Collier says:

    When a thing was incomplete he did not try to patch it; he did it all over again and again and again-till it was finished-or wrecked, as often happened, from the sitter getting tired, or growing up or growing old.

    “It was certainly not a recipe for one-down-t’other-come-on portrait painting, to be delivered in time and depended on.”

    From “The Art of Portrait Painting” by John Collier,Cassel & Co,London,about 1910(?)

    • artmodel says:


      Oh, yes, that would totally drive models crazy! Whistler sounds pretty difficult to work with. It’s a frustrating process for everyone, no doubt.

      Thanks for sharing that passage. How is that book in general? I’ve seen it on Amazon.


      • Bill says:

        Sorry — haven’t read it. I remembered that factoid about Whistler but I didn’t trust my memory — so I did a quick Google search for a reference to confirm it.

        I also remember seeing a Whistler poetrait of a young girl and, believe me, if looks could kill . . . she was obviously not happy. Maybe that’s why his most famous painting features his mother as a model — she’d put up with him!

        You guys put up with a lot. We have Father’s Day and Mother’s Day — maybe we should have a Model’s Day. Give chocolate to your most deserving model(s).

        • artmodel says:


          I think Model’s Day is a fantastic idea, but I can’t see it ever happening. But if it does I would like chocolate AND strawberries 🙂

          Whistler’s mother surely put up with him, but in the painting even she doesn’t look too thrilled! The guy was definitely a handful.

          Thanks Bill!


  4. Ron says:

    As for limited palettes, even his most famous painting, commonly known as Whistler’s Mother, is formally known as Arrangement in Grey and Black. Mother may be the most famous muse after Mona Lisa .

  5. Rob says:

    I like your post! Although the painter may have “intention” vis a vis the work it is the viewer(s) holding the final say, I think. I’ve been doing this series based on the writing of Ray Carver….my interpretation of his words; people who see them don’t have a clue unless I link the work with his story. And I feel/say “so what”; it makes no difference if the piece works. Thanks for your continued, thoughtful work!!! You remain a treat in the cyber-world!!

    • artmodel says:


      To what do I owe such words of praise?!! Oh, it doesn’t matter. I like it! 🙂

      I couldn’t agree with you more, that if a piece “works”, it works, and that’s what matters most.

      Thanks for contributing your comments, Rob. So nice to hear from you!


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