Whistler – Elegant Simplicity

This past week I visited the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian. Anyone who has been there will know it is primarily a gallery of Asian art and particularly, Japanese paintings. But it also houses the famous “Peacock Room” by James McNeill Whistler. There is also an adjoining gallery of Whistler paintings. In this gallery there were about 30 pieces. Some of his well known portraits- large, formal, tonal- were exhibited as well as a nocturne which he is famous for. But there were several studies that were less well known and from his late period. I am always fascinated with an artist’s last works when they no longer care about success and all of its trappings; when they are confident to paint what is calling forth to be painted from within. There is usually less formality and more heart and soul. Whistler’s work was comprised of all of these things.

This late work was beautifully refined and elegant and contained an utter simplicity that was exceptional. The “Peacock Room” contained all those aspects of Japanese art that was popular at the time- richly gilded walls with magnificent peacocks in gold and turquoise, hand carved shelves and decorative work, a formal painting of a woman in a kimono- refined and elegant but hardly simple. The late work takes all of these characteristics and refines it in a crucible of simplicity that speaks of a beauty that is born within- a flower in bud moments from opening. A seminal Japanese aesthetic.

There was a series of female figures that were studies for a mural piece. I particularly like the “Venus” completed the year of his death. It depicts a female nude standing on the beach in a late light, with drapery blowing behind and gently caressing the figure. The flesh is beautifully cool amid a subtle warmness. It is grace itself.

This same grace he carries to two portraits of a girl. One titled “The Red Glove” and the other simply “A Girl”. The format for both was a narrow vertical canvas in which the girl easily slipped into, with space above her head- sensitive, thoughtful and utterly simple- extremely touching. It contained all the simplicity of Japanese painting- refined and elegant- but also very American- very Whistler.

In a lower gallery there was a series of drawings in which Whistler inventoried his own collection of Japanese vases with his signature butterfly icon. Within his personal collection of drawings were a group of female figures on toned paper in pastel. I had seen one of these drawings last year at the Met in a drawing show. Even though it was very small, 3″x 5″, it was very powerful and I took note of it. It was wonderful to see the rest of them in a group. A beautiful graceful outline of the figure with the utmost simplicity of modelling in two or three colors on a warm brown paper.

Whistler achieved a style which spoke of an “immensity” hidden within the simple. In this way he holds in his work a true Japanese aesthetic. The Japanese as well as the Chinese did not work directly from nature. But instead observed nature carefully and then absorbed all that they had observed and then attempted to describe all those characteristics within the image. This image was produced away from his subject and at a time when the artist felt that he had come to know his subject intimately. Whistler takes from Japanese painting the sense of  meticulous observation re-imagined with ease, containing within itself all the possibilities of that object- it’s beginning, it’s growth and dissolution- and abbreviates those things into a simple image. Looking around the museum, there were countless Chinese and Japanese images that spoke of the same sense of “immensity” manifest in the simple rendering of an object. By observing the small and specific character of a thing, one inherently sees the connection it has to “all” things and it becomes a reflection of “life” itself and to “living”. This is really Whistler’s contribution to western aesthetics, that one might feel the “immensity” that is life itself and take us beyond mere craftsmanship and bless us with a beauty that is sublime.


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