February 2010 Issue
The Toledo Museum of Art spotlights the work of James Whistler.
Most of us have met his mother.
Now, it’s time to become acquainted with other aspects of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s family of artwork. From February 26 through May 30, the Toledo Museum of Art
is presenting “Whistler: Influences, Friends and the Not-So-Friendly,” a 120-print retrospective of the American painter/printmaker (1834–1903) and his peers.
Whistler’s 1871 profile of his pensive parent has become an icon, gracing everything from T-shirts to posters to coffee mugs. But, says Tom Loeffler, the museum’s assistant curator of works on paper, there’s more to the artist than that famous homage to his mom.
A devout follower of the Realist approach, in which subjects are depicted in as straightforward a manner as possible, Whistler often allowed little room for personal poetic license.
Unlike Monet and other impressionist painters of his day, Whistler wasn’t interested in experimenting with the effects of light and color. “He was,” Loeffler says, “more concerned with capturing the true authenticity of the scene before him.”
Examples of that commitment spotlighted in the exhibit include “Eagle Wharf” and “Limehouse,” etchings from 1859 the curator describes as “depicting the gritty nature of the Thames River in urban London.”
Although revered for his talent, Whistler’s personality was far from amiable. “He was combative, very egotistical and somewhat of a dandy,” Loeffler explains. “He also had an impetuous temper.”
Hence the title of the exhibit, which showcases the talents of friends who quickly became foes when subjected to Whistler’s volatile temperament. Among these was his brother-in-law, the English-physician-turned-etcher Francis Seymour Haden, a mentor whom Whistler pushed through a plate-glass window in a fit of jealousy.
“Early in his career, Whistler’s monogram was a butterfly,” Loeffler says, “Later, that butterfly developed a stinger.”