Whistler's Rooms

by Paul P.

For an artist with no prominent disciples, James Abbott McNeill Whistler has left a curious and broadly applied aesthetic legacy. He was an extreme dandy as well as obstinate reformer, never without a battle being waged in the papers or courtroom. Paradoxically, his fame now rests mostly on a maudlin appreciation of "Whistler's Mother," a painting whose real title is Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (1871). Whistler often titled his works with such terms as "Arrangements," "Harmonies," and "Notes," placing their compositional structures beyond the sentimental mores of Victorian art to evoke the abstraction of music. Whistler was among the first Western artists to embrace the art of Japan, eventually subsuming its comparatively radical dimensionality into his practice.

Whistler's aesthetics extended to the rooms themselves in which his art was presented. Anticipating the gallery as we know it today, these radical spaces can be considered among the first iterations of installation art. The dark, fabric-covered walls of the time were replaced with painted neutral surfaces; art was disentangled from the 19th-century practice of dense, salon-style clusters and placed on an even line; brass nameplates were replaced with the gallery checklist; lighting was regulated and controlled through ceiling-mounted blinds over skylights. Furniture, flowers, and floor coverings were all part of a complex design within a unified color scheme that came to define the exhibitions, such as Arrangement in White and Yellow (1884), where every detail was part of a harmonious orchestration, down to the livery of the gallery attendant. The effect was certainly controversial for Whistler’s period, when the intensity of such color palettes were thought to induce sickness.

Whistler was deeply in love with his effects and found sport in humiliating those who weren’t. A certain queerness  can be ascribed to Whistler—fey and petite, an American in London, beauty was his religion. Oscar Wilde, a friend and verbal sparring mate, was most in debt for his own highly developed aesthetic to Whistler. It was famously after one of Whistler’s high-profile provocations that Wilde said, “I wish I’d said that,” to which Whistler retorted, "You will, Oscar, you will."

Although there are no extant examples save for the Peacock Room (1876–77)—a masterpiece of intervention, if not vandalism, on the artist’s part—one of Whistler’s greatest achievements was within domestic interior design. In his own home he was at his most radical: sparse, light-filled rooms with clean, painted walls of white and yellow; Japanese fans and blue-and-white china purposefully placed; slender, uncomfortable cane chairs, positioned as carefully as the decorative objects; and a few of his own etchings, simply framed. Whistler held aristocratic pretensions in art, but his domestic rooms were pure and economical. Fortune saw him alternately rich and ruined, yet, with each change of circumstance between London and Paris, he found opportunities for refinement. In later years, his white-painted environments contained but a few perfectly placed trunks and boxes—a sense of space so mutant from its overstuffed time period as to forecast the art gallery of the future, and, by extension, contemporary interior design.

Paul P. is a Canadian artist living in Paris.

Image: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871, courtesy of Musée d'Orsay, Paris.