A butterfly in full flight

James McNeill Whistler
September 1, 1995

There is a widely held belief that artists' sketches, scribblings and discarded doodlings provide a valuable key to their art and life. This is certainly true of James McNeill Whistler, who embraced drawing while still a child and relied upon it to quantify and define his disparate and at times dissolute world throughout a 60-year career as painter, printmaker, designer and draughtsman. The result of that love-affair was a prodigious number of drawings, designs and watercolours, most of which are presented in this monumental piece of scholarship, compiled and written by the indefatigable Margaret MacDonald over 20 years.

Claims have been made in the wake of the touring Whistler exhibition that Whistler could not draw, that his was a stilted and third-rate talent. The author takes a more studied view in light of her staggering amount of research: "Whistler's taste was impeccable but his judgement was sometimes questionable. It is interesting to examine the rejected drawings and evaluate Whistler's aims. His standards were high, and he was rarely complacent. His art was never static, but was rich in variety. This book will reveal aspects of the man, his art and his world, previously unknown." It is a well-founded claim, for here, in 1,700 catalogue entries for 1,800 images (1,600 of which are reproduced) we see Whistler's career take form.

Although Whistler was best known for his oils and prints, his drawings and watercolours lie at the heart of his career. He made delicate pen studies before he etched, perfected the subtlety of pastel on textured paper and long worried about the divide between drawing and painting. Ultimately his desire for perfection could be seen in the numerous pastel and chalk life-study drawings well reproduced here. Like most of the catalogued drawings they are expertly described with provenance and stylistic arguments for authenticity. Moreover the book represents a formidable task in attribution, for even in Whistler's lifetime his career was challenged by copyists and disciples. There is also a fascinating explanation of the evolution of the artist's butterfly monogram: once inspired by his initials, it changed to a butterfly with a sting during the Ruskin trial and a trefoil for good luck during his marriage.

Here, then, is a model of academic scholarship that ably takes its place alongside the earlier complete paintings of Whistler volume, upon which its format and style is based. It sports a valuable eight-page bibliography citing recent Whistlerian scholarship, a splendid list of exhibitions and, most useful, two indices of names and titles, places and subjects. The catalogue itself is chronologically arranged to chart easily the artist's struggles with works on paper: it begins with a charming pencil drawing of a duck (done in 1838, aged four?), then romps through pages of Russian sketches, militaria, maps and borrowed sketches from favourite illustrators like Cruikshank and Gavarni. Not surprisingly there is an early watercolour copy after Turner, when the 17-year-old Whistler chose the aptly titled subject "Rockets and blue lights (close at hand) to warn steamboats of shoal water" as a fitting precursor to his own influential "Nocturnes". Such entries have fascinating commentaries attached with contemporary criticism and comments.

Curiously, although it is clear from this volume that Whistler was a devoted and prodigious draughtsman, until now we have not known just how prolific. Only a small proportion of his drawings were known in his lifetime, through publication or exhibition. Here at last we can wonder at the range, the unevenness and the successes in what has emerged as a catalogue of three times the size as the number of oils and prints he produced.

Rodney Engen writes books on 19th-century British art, is a consultant to Christies, London, and lives in Whistler's house on Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.

James McNeill Whistler: Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné

Author - Margaret F. MacDonald
ISBN - 0 300 05987 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £95.00
Pages - 642

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