UNIVERSITY of GLASGOW

The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Documents associated with: Scotland
Record 5 of 35

System Number: 11748
Date: 3 October 1884
Author: George Roland Halkett[1]
Place: [Edinburgh]
Recipient: Editor, Scotsman[2]
Place: [Edinburgh]
Repository: Library of Congress
Call Number: Manuscript Division, Pennell-Whistler Collection, PWC 14/1363/3-5
Document Type: TLc


5, Douglas Crescent,

October 3rd 1884.

Sir,

Will you permit me to give expression to a very widespread feeling that an effort should be made to obtain for the Scottish National Gallery the magnificent portrait of Carlyle[3] by Mr Whistler, now in the Loan Exhibition. There can be no question that a National Portrait Gallery, endowed by the generosity and public spirit of a Scotsman, should possess a portrait of one of the most eminent of Scotland's sons, and there can be as little doubt that a more faithful portrait than this of Whistler's will not readily be obtainable. Mr Whistler's unconventional methods and personal eccentricities[4], perhaps even more than Mr Ruskin's "pot of paint"[5] criticism have tended unduly to discredit him in the popular estimation, and in certain varieties of his work there may be room for doubt whether he should be regarded quite seriously. But the present picture is in truth one of the most serious and impressive of his productions, and has been accepted as such by artists and critics. The criticism applied by Mr Brownell in his "Scribner"[6] [p. 2] article is another portrait by Whistler - that of his mother[7] - is equally applicable here - "In a grave dignity, not without sensibility, a quiet and almost severe grace that is full of character, it is difficult to conceive a more charming union of portraiture and picturesqueness"[.] ["]At last year's Salon[8] Mr Whistler was awarded a medal by a jury composed of the leading artists in Paris and including men so eminent in their art and yet so opposite in their tendencies and methods as Bounat, Cabanel and Bougereau[9] [sic] ; and this year, as we learn from a competent authority in the "Magazine of Art[10]" this portrait of Carlyle and another exhibit[11] were among the most popular of the pictures at the Salon. Apart from its distinctive merits as a work of art, it has been freely admitted by those who knew Carlyle well to be a thoroughly faithful as well as a most pathetic rendering of the "Sage of Chelsea" in his age.["]

So much having been said, it cannot be denied that there may be another opinion as to the picture. Artists, like doctors, are prone to differ, and whilst the portrait cannot fail to occasion the admiration of those who are "in touch" with continental art methods, there are some, perhaps, among those whose practice is based, righteously enough, upon more conventional models who may have little sympathy with Mr Whistler, even though he be, as he has been styled, "the most typical painter and the most absolute artist of his time[12]." He has no [p. 3] association with any artistic creed or sect - no regard for traditional formulas or rules; and if he holds by any of the great masters of the past, his perfection of tone and subdued harmony of colour entitle him to rank as a follower of Velasquez[13], however strange and unfamiliar his work may appear to eyes accustomed to the productions of our current schools.

It would be a great thing for Edinburgh if she were the first city in this country publicly to recognise, what the art lovers of France and America have been proclaiming for many a day, and, encouraging Mr Whistler's art, at the same time obtain a worthy portrait of Thomas Carlyle himself out of the earliest and most ardent advocates of a Scottish National Portrait Gallery[14]. Unlike the National Galleries in London and Dublin, we in Scotland have to depend in the meantime upon private liberality for our art treasures, and it is to be hoped in the present instance that this, our only resource, will not fail us.

I am, etc.,

(Signed) George R. Halkett.


This document is protected by copyright.


Notes:

1.  George Roland Halkett
George Roland Halkett (1855-1918), artist, critic and political cartoonist.

2.  Editor, The Scotsman
This was published in The Scotsman, 6 October 1884, under the title Whistler's portrait of Carlyle.

3.  portrait of Carlyle
Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle (YMSM 137), of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), historian and philosopher [more], had been on exhibition in Loan Exhibition, Scottish National Portraits, Board of Manufactures, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, 1884.

4.  eccentricities
On 10 October [1884] JW wrote to A. Graves saying "I am weary of the discussion and the possible distinctions between what is supposed to be serious and what is known to be excentric [sic] in my productions" (#10918).

5.  Mr Ruskin's 'pot of paint'
John Ruskin (1819-1900), critic, social reformer and artist [more], Ruskin, John, 'Letter the Seventy-ninth' Fors Clavigera, 2 July 1877, pp. 181-213, accused JW of 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face', which provoked JW to sue Ruskin for damages for libel.

6.  Mr Brownell in his Scribner
Brownell, W. C., 'American Pictures at the Salon,' The Magazine of Art, vol. 6, 1883, pp. 492-501.

7.  mother
Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (YMSM 101).

8.  Salon
At 101st exhibition, Ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et lithographie des artistes vivants, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1883 JW was awarded a third class medal for the portrait of his mother.

9.  Bounat, Cabanel and Bougereau
Léon-Joseph Florentin Bounat (1834-1923), painter and collector [more], Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), painter [more], and William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), painter and professor [more].

10.  Magazine of Art
Brownell, W. C., 'The American Salon,' The Magazine of Art, vol. 7, 1884, pp. 492-499, writing on 102nd exhibition, Ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et lithographie des artistes vivants, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1884.

11.  another exhibit
Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander (YMSM 129).

12.  the most typical painter and the most absolute artist of his time
This is similar to a description of JW in Brownell, W. C., 'American Pictures at the Salon,' The Magazine of Art, vol. 6, 1883, pp. 492-501, writing on 101st exhibition, Ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et lithographie des artistes vivants, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1883: 'It is the concentration of attention upon his pure eccentricities (much fewer in number than is popularly supposed) that prevents his recognition as, perhaps, the most thorough, the most perfect, the most typical artist of our time [...]'.

13.  Velasquez
Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), painter [more]. JW's work was compared with that of Velasquez from the 1860s on, thus giving historical context and validity to his work.

14.  Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Carlyle had strongly advocated the establishment of a Scottish National Portrait Gallery.