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 🙂