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Indepth Arts News:

"American Attitude: Whistler and His Followers"
2004-03-15 until 2004-06-06
Detroit Institute of Art
Detroit, MI, USA

Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, commonly known as "Whistler’s Mother," is one of those rare paintings that seldom leaves its home museum, the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris. This legendary work will travel to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) for a special appearance in the exhibition American Attitude: Whistler and His Followers, March 14–June 6, 2004. American Attitude focuses on the influential American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and the impact his innovative style had on a generation of American artists at the turn of the 20th century.

The 63 pieces in the show include 13 paintings by Whistler as well as works by other prominent American artists such as John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Henry Ossawa Tanner. Whistler’s paintings will be juxtaposed with those of his followers, clearly showing how Whistler’s artistic inventiveness and radical ideas about composition and color influenced his contemporaries and affected American art.

"This exhibition celebrates the legacy of a preeminent American artist whose pioneering style truly embodied the American spirit," said Graham W. J. Beal, DIA director. "The DIA is in the unique position of presenting two of Whistler’s most important paintings here in Detroit, the renowned ‘Whistler’s Mother’ together with our own Nocturne in Black and Gold. This special opportunity, made possible by a rare loan agreement with the Musée d’Orsay, is a testament to the DIA’s stature and to the exceptional experiences we’re able to offer our visitors."

Whistler left the United States at age 21 to study and work in Paris and London, both international centers for fine art. Though he never returned to the U.S., he was always considered an American artist. His treatment of color, composition and portraiture was often criticized and rejected by European audiences, but American artists were intrigued and inspired by his modern approach and original style. Whistler’s celebrity was on the rise in the U.S. throughout the 1880s, but he secured enduring fame in 1891, when the French government purchased "Whistler’s Mother," one of the most well-known American paintings in the world. Unlike his contemporaries, Whistler was not interested in telling a moral story or in idealizing the subjects in his paintings. He considered subject matter less important than constructing harmonies of color and composition, and focused on creating a mood or atmosphere in his work. For example, "Whistler’s Mother," was criticized for its lack of sentimentality and warmth, qualities the art world would have expected to see in a portrait of one’s mother. In an article published May 22, 1878, in the London society paper The World, Whistler defended his painting. He wrote: "Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black.’ Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?"

Whistler also broke with artistic convention by titling his paintings "symphonies," "nocturnes" and "arrangements," because he associated his paintings with the evocative nature of music. In the article cited above, he wrote: "Art should be independent of all clap-trap–should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works ‘arrangements’ and ‘harmonies.’

Two of Whistler’s paintings that were very controversial when first shown are also in the exhibition: Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, and the DIA’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. The latter, a night scene of fireworks over London’s Cremorne Gardens, was cause for the most famous lawsuit in the art world. The influential British critic John Ruskin described this work as a "pot of paint" flung in the public’s face, and Whistler sued him for libel. The Falling Rocket conveyed Whistler’s impression of the brilliant fireworks in the night sky and was never intended to be a realistic depiction of the scene. Rather, it was a product of Whistler’s philosophy of making art for art’s sake. At the trial, Whistler said this painting was never meant to be "the portrait of a particular place, but only an artistic impression." He won the lawsuit, but was awarded only one farthing, which is equal to a few pennies. However, the trial gave Whistler the opportunity to expound on his aesthetic philosophy, and in subsequent years The Falling Rocket was lauded by critic Gustav Kobbé as "an epoch-making picture" that marked "the decline of an arrogant school of criticism, and the beginning of Whistler’s influence on modern art."

The exhibition visibly shows how American artists embraced Whistler’s revolutionary style and welcomed his modern aesthetic. His influence is evident in paintings such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler by William Merritt Chase, The Spanish Dancer by John Singer Sargent, and Portrait of the Artist’s Mother by Henry Ossawa Tanner, as well as in works by other artists in the show.

James W. Tottis, DIA acting curator of American art and exhibition curator, notes the importance of Whistler’s influence on his contemporaries. "Many people don’t realize how inventive Whistler’s style was, and how widely it was imitated by well-known American artists of his time. By interspersing Whistler’s paintings with those of his followers, the exhibition will show visitors how the elements that are so identified with Whistler were copied by many respected American artists."

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