Whistler Stories
by Don C. Seitz
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"It's a good thing we can't see ourselves as others see us," sneered the Briton.

"Isn't it, though?" rejoined Whistler, gently. "I know in my case I should grow intolerably conceited."

* * * * *

Financial necessities once caused the sale of Whistler's choice furnishings. Some of the family, returning to the house during his absence, found the floor covered with chalk diagrams, the largest of which was labeled: "This is the dining-table."

Surrounding it were a number of small squares, each marked: "This is a chair."

Another square: "This is the sideboard."

* * * * *

Cope Whitehouse once described a boat-load of Egyptians "floating down the Nile with the thermometer one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade, and no shade."

"And no thermometer," interjected Whistler.

* * * * *

A lady sitter brought a cat with her and placed it on her knee. The cat was nervous and yowled continuously.

"Madam," said the vexed artist, "will you have the cat in the foreground or in the back yard?"

* * * * *

While painting one of his famous nocturnes a critic of considerable pretensions called. "Good heavens, Whistler!" he cried, "what in the world are you splashing at?"

"I am teaching art to posterity," Whistler replied, quietly.

"Oh!" said the critic, visibly relieved. "I was afraid you were painting for the Royal Academy."

"Oh, no," answered Whistler; "they do not want masterpieces there, but some of their picture-frames are exquisite and really worth bus-fare to look at."

* * * * *

Walking in the Champs-Elyses in Paris one morning, Whistler heard one Englishman say to another:

"See that chap over there?"

"What? That chap with the long hair and spindle legs?"

"Yes, that's the one. That's Whistler, the American, who thinks he's the greatest painter on earth."

Walking up to the pair, Whistler held out his hand and said gravely to the last speaker:

"Sir, I beg your acceptance of these ten centimes. Go buy yourself a little hay!"

* * * * *

Sitting for a portrait was an ordeal. Many were quite upset after a siege in the studio. One man annoyed the artist by saying at each dismissal:

"How-about that ear, Mr. Whistler? Don't forget to finish that." At the last session, all being finished but this ear, Whistler said, "Well, I think I'm through; now I'll sign it." This he did in a very solemn and important way.

"But my ear!" exclaimed the victim. "You're not going to leave it that way?"

"Oh," said Whistler, grimly, "you can put it in after you get home."

* * * * *

He occasionally contemplated visiting America in his late years, but the dread of the journey was too much for him to overcome. "If I escape the Atlantic," he said, "I shall be wrecked by some reporter at the pier." Finally, he definitely canceled his last proposed trip, observing airily: "One cannot continuously disappoint a continent."

"America," he once said, lightly, "is a country where I never can be a prophet."

* * * * *

Sir Rennell Rodd recalled that at a breakfast Waldo Story gave at Dieu-donn's in Paris there was a great company, including Whistler. Every one there was by the way of having written a book or painted a picture, or having in some way outraged the Philistine, with the exception of one young gentleman whose raison d'tre was not so apparent as his high collar and the glory of his attire. He nevertheless intruded boldly into the talk and laid down his opinions very flatly. He even went so far as to combat some dictum of the master's, whereat that gentleman adjusted his glasses and, looking pleasantly at the youth, queried:

"And whose son are you?"

When Dorothy Menpes was a babe in the cradle a white feather lay across her infant brow. The sight pleased Whistler. "That child is going to develop into something great," he prophesied, "for see, she begins with a feather, just like me."

* * * * *

In the last two years of his life Mr. Whistler's disputes grew less frequent and his public flashes were few. The Morning Post of London, however, provoked an admirable specimen of his best style, which it printed under date of August 6th, 1902. In its "Art and Artists" column the paper had made the following statement:

"Mr. Whistler is so young in spirit that his friends must have read with surprise the Dutch physician's announcement that the present illness is due to 'advanced age.' In England sixty-seven is not exactly regarded as 'advanced age,' but even for the gay 'butterfly' time does not stand still, and some who are unacquainted with the details of Mr. Whistler's career, though they know his work well, will be surprised to learn that he was exhibiting at the Academy forty-three years ago. His contributions to the exhibition of 1859 were 'Two Etchings from Nature,' and at intervals during the following fourteen or fifteen years Mr. Whistler was represented at the Academy by a number of works, both paintings and etchings. In 1863 his contributions numbered seven in all, and in 1865 four. Among his Academy pictures of 1865 was the famous 'Little White Girl,' the painting that attracted so much attention at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. This picture—rejected at the Salon of 1863—was inspired, though the fact seems to have been forgotten of late, by the following lines of Swinburne:

Come snow, come wind or thunder High up in air, I watch my face and wonder At my bright hair, etc."

Under date of August 3d Mr. Whistler sent from The Hague this brisk reply:

I feel it no indiscretion to speak of my "convalescence," since you have given it official existence.

May I, therefore, acknowledge the tender little glow of health induced by reading, as I sat here in the morning sun, the flattering attention paid me by your gentleman of the ready wreath and quick biography?

I cannot, as I look at my improving self with daily satisfaction, really believe it all—still it has helped to do me good!—and it is with almost sorrow that I must beg you, perhaps, to put back into its pigeonhole for later on this present summary and replace it with something preparatory, which, doubtless, you have also ready.

This will give you time, however, for some correction—if really it be worth while—but certainly the "Little White Girl," which was not rejected at the Salon of '63, was, I am forced to say, not "inspired by the following lines of Swinburne," for the one simple reason that those lines were only written, in my studio, after the picture was painted. And the writing of them was a rare and graceful tribute from the poet to the painter—a noble recognition of work by the production of a nobler one!

Again, of the many tales concerning the hanging at the Academy of the well-known portrait of the artist's mother, now at the Luxembourg, one is true—let us trust your gentleman may have time to find it out—that I may correct it. I surely may always hereafter rely on the Morning Post to see that no vulgar Woking joke reach me?

It is my marvelous privilege then to come back, as who should say, while the air is still warm with appreciation, affection, and regret, and to learn in how little I had offended. The continuing to wear my own hair and eyebrows, after distinguished confrres and eminent persons had long ceased their habit, has, I gather, clearly given pain. This, I see, is much remarked on. It is even found inconsiderate and unseemly in me, as hinting at affectation.

I might beg you, sir, to find a pretty place for this, that I would make my apology, containing also promise, in years to come, to lose these outer signs of vexing presumption.

Protesting, with full enjoyment of its unmerited eulogy, against your premature tablet, I ask you again to contradict it, and appeal to your own sense of kind sympathy when I tell you I learn that I have lurking in London still "a friend"—though for the life of me I cannot remember his name. And I have, sir, the honor to be,


The last dispute that found its way to print came through the New York Sun and Will H. Low, to whom Mr. Whistler sought to convey a piece of his mind via the newspaper channel, under date of May 8th, 1903, This grew out of a complication in which Mr. Low became involved with the Hanging Committee of the Society of American Artists over the placing in its exhibition of "Rosa Corder" and two marines by Whistler borrowed from Charles L. Freer, of Detroit, on the condition that they be hung "in a good position." The position selected did not suit Mr. Low, and he withdrew the pictures. Mr. Whistler sent his remonstrance to the Sun's London office, from which it was cabled to New York and published on May 9th, as follows:

"I had waited for Mr. Low to publish my reply to a letter from himself concerning the withdrawal of my pictures from the Society of American Artists.

"This gentle opinion of my own upon the situation is, I understand, expert. I therefore inclose it to you for publication. I have the honor to be, dear sir, your obedient servant."

The remarks to Mr. Low read:

"I have just learned with distress that my canvases have been a trouble and a cause of thought to the gentlemen of the Hanging Committee!

"Pray present to them my compliments and my deep regrets.

"I fear also that this is not the first time of simple and good-natured intrusion—looking in, as who would say, with beaming fellowship and crass camaraderie upon the highly finished table and well-seated guests—to be kindly and swiftly shuffled into some further respectable place—that all be well and hospitality endure.

"Promise, then, for me, that I have learned and that 'this shall not occur again.' And, above all, do not allow a matter of colossal importance to ever interfere with the afternoon habit of peace and good will, and the leaf of the mint so pleasantly associated with this society.

"I could not be other than much affected by your warm and immediate demonstration, but I should never forgive myself were the consequence of lasting vexation to your distinguished confrres."


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