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.


A Transforming Place

Summer is the perfect time to look about one’s outdoor spaces and see one’s self reflected there. In a garden, one’s inner life overflows to the outside world. A gardener allows one’s environment to become affected by the mystery that lies within. It becomes a space overflowing with one’s own nature – Claude Monet’s garden becomes his contemplation as well as a reflection of his inner state of being manifest in a physical form. They both feed off of one another- a swinging between the yin and the yang- creating an intense harmony of soul. Monet never felt the need to leave this garden toward the end of his life because it was a true reflection of himself and satisfied his inner need as well as providing  meaningful contact with the world. The garden is a place where color, harmony, design, intuitive relationships and choices are sought after, a place of creativity ( man’s rightful activity).

The garden becomes a primary platform that allows one to be at ease with the world. It allows nature to affect us with its beauty. This beauty becomes a conduit for reverie, a dwelling place of images, a fluid space for the imagination. In Coleridge’s, Anima Poetae, he muses, “In looking at objects of nature while I am thinking…I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking for a symbolic language for something within me that already exists, than observing anything new. Even when the later is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling as if that new phenomena were the dim awakening of a forgotten or hidden truth of my inner nature.” (1805) Harmony with the world overflows to creativity and invention. Ancient Greeks studied philosophy in a garden for good reason. Such a space presented those who sought wisdom with wisdom itself- the harmonious organization of the world.

Great outdoor spaces are a combination of human endeavor and the free movement and flow of nature herself- entering the same space and manifesting herself freely in her rambling way, unhindered by human effort, softening all human architecture and incorporating it into the rhythm inherent in nature. Epic and sublime spaces join the forces of man’s  influence on the landscape as well as concede control over to nature herself. Epidarus is an example- a theatre space with the over-arching sky and grand mountains  as background. This theatre exist in the conscious presence of the gods – a space that recognizes their dwelling place and the realm of their activity and authority over man and the world. The Greeks recognized Sophia(wisdom) as a balance between man’s effort to understand nature and one’s relationship to the gods.

In gardening, one must allow for the unexpected- a seedling dropped by a bird appears; the flower you wanted turns out to be the wrong color; the plant you thought would fit perfectly takes over and some things refuse to grow- Nature is ultimately in control and one can only carefully tend it to go in a certain direction. I find this analogous to painting- once involved in a piece it tends to take on a life of its own, the artist acting as a secondary force to its manifestation and in many ways the painting turns out surprisingly different but appropriate from one’s original intentions. A landscape begun on a bright day, which never seems to return, leads to a more moody piece- more effective and deeply felt- than that clear, blue sky day. Nature has lead one to accept her own designs. Painting the landscape, one must accept the ebb and flows of nature like the tide. It is best not to force one’s intentions but accept what presents itself freely before one’s consciousness. “The spiritual, mental, and imaginative movement that takes place (in the poet’s or artist’s) mind never loses touch with what the eye perceives in the appearances that surround it. Indeed, it is in and through the appearances that the movement takes place, culminating in a Zen-like vision of other more boundless worlds than the one perceived by the ocular organ…Sometimes the most intense journeys- the most visionary journeys- take place while one stays put, in moments of stillness unscorched by “passion’s heat”.” (Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens, An Essay on the Human Condition,p.119)


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