The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler

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Documents associated with: 118th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, Royal Academy, London, 1886
Record 1 of 4

System Number: 11351
Date: 10 June 1886
Author: Malcolm Charles Salaman[1]
Place: [London]
Recipient: [none]
Repository: Library of Congress
Call Number: Manuscript Division, Pennell-Whistler Collection, PWC 14/1300-3
Document Type: PD/Ms[2]

Paper lent by Mr Salaman
the Court and Society Review
June 10th 1886

Hail, President Whistler!

All true lovers of art, who have been driven into a despondent mood by a visit to the present Royal Academy Exhibition[3], must have felt their spirits rise with the announcement that Mr James McNeill Whistler had been elected President[4] of the Society of British Artists; for surely here is a hopeful sign of a brighter future for art in this country. At last a body of English artists have made public recognition of the fact that they have a great master in their midst, and one to whose influence may be traced most of the best work that has been lately produced by our native painters. Who, then, but this master had any claim to preside over a Society of Artists which had honoured itself in inviting him to become one of its members, and which owes its renewed vitality and suddenly increased importance to the distinction derived from its association with him? The Society of British Artists had sunk to a very low ebb as an artistic institution when Mr Whistler joined its ranks a couple of years ago, but its position is very different now from what it was at that time. Its exhibitions are no longer a Slough of Despond[5] to the art-critic, but some of the best art-work of the year may be seen in its spacious and well-lighted galleries in Suffolk Street. Mr John Burr[6], the retiring president, may feel proud that this improvement has occurred during the last two years of his tenure of office; but it was high time that a [p. 2] Society with such infinite possibilities of encouraging true art as this should be officially presided over by the master-genius that was virtually dominating it. It was almost an anomaly that Mr Whistler should be presided over by any one, but it was simply absurd that he should have been subordinate to Mr Burr, although no one questions the eminent respectability and presidential capacity of that esteemed gentleman. How supremely ridiculous then was the attempt made by a number of members to advance the claims of Mr Wyke Bayliss[7] to be president instead of Mr Whistler. It is simply appalling to contemplate what would have been the result had the majority of members so far ignored their obvious responsibilities as to elect Mr Bayliss and reject Mr Whistler. Setting aside the question of artistic retrogression, what would have become of those pleasant Sunday reunions at Suffolk Street? For did not Mr Wyke Bayliss - who, by the way, fondly imagines he paints cathedral interiors as they should be painted - rise in the midst of a committee meeting and call down the divine wrath on these Sunday afternoon tea-parties? And yet there are Philistines who foolishly regret the result of the presidential election, and who dare still to regard Mr Whistler as a farceur and an imposter! What can be said of such persons? They must be pitied, of course, but they must be reclaimed; else while they continue to exist there will be no check on the production of those pictorial absurdities and abominations which certain persons, with no artistic mission whatever, consider themselves justified in perpetrating for their livelihood.

[p. 3] There is a great deal of misapprehension abroad as to the mission and scope of pictorial art, but I feel convinced that a wider knowledge of Mr Whistler's work will greatly tend towards removing this misapprehension. The object of all art, it seems to me, is to beautify life; but the aim of each branch of art must be limited by the means proper to that art. For instance, pictorial art deals not legitimately with ethics, with allegory, or with anecdote; its primary purpose is with beauty of form and colour, which is the only raison d'être of every picture that can claim to be a work of art. Certainly pictures that have stories to tell appeal at once to the superficial and ignorant, for it is the story, and not the picture as an artistic production, which attracts their fancy. Hence we may trace a great deal of the bad work that is produced to this very ignorance as to what pictorial art really means. The conventional painter is hampered by what is, in truth, the literature of his subject, and thus his art becomes subordinate to it. But happily the influence of Mr Whistler is spreading. He above all living painters understands the genius of the painter's art, its scope and its true purpose. And more than that, he is, I am convinced, the greatest living exponent of that art. So far from being a farceur or joker, as many ignorant persons assert, he is perhaps the most serious as well as the greatest of artists, although one of the wittiest and most vivacious of men. Such a brilliant combination the British Artists are fortunate to have at their head; and there is little doubt that this Society will [p. 4] not only progress now at a rapid rate, but will become a very important and powerful rival to the Royal Academy. One thing is ceratin [sic], that unless some very radical reforms take place at Burlington House, all the rising young painters to whom we must look for the future of British art will flock to the standard of Mr - why not Sir James? - Whistler, rather than to that of Sir Frederick Leighton[8]. The Society of British Artists should now receive a royal charter.


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1.  Malcolm C. Salaman
Malcolm Charles Salaman (1855-1940), art critic and dramatist [more].

2.  PD/Ms
Typescript copy of an article originally published in the Court and Society Review with ms additions by the Pennells. See also other documents in this sequence: 'A Country Collector,' 'A British Artist,' 'The Unknown Quantity' and 'Van Eyck', to the Editor, Court and Society Review, #11352, #11353, #11354, #11355; M. C. Salaman to the Editor, #11356.

3.  Exhibition
118th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, Royal Academy, London, 1886.

4.  President
JW was elected on 1 June 1886 as President of the Society of British Artists, of Suffolk Street.

5.  Slough of Despond
A bog that is one of the first obstacles in Pilgrim's way, in Bunyan, John, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is To Come, (1678).

6.  John Burr
John P. Burr (1831-1893), genre painter [more].

7.   Wyke Bayliss
Wyke Bayliss (1835-1906), painter and architect [more].

8.  Frederick Leighton
Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), painter and sculptor [more], President of the Royal Academy.