The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Documents associated with: art theory
Record 14 of 27

System Number: 13353
Date: [21 August 1886?][1]
Author: JW
Place: [Paris]
Recipient: Henry Labouchère[2]
Place: [London]
Repository: Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow
Call Number: GLAHA 46117, pp. 9-16
Document Type: ALd

[p. 1] a wellmeaning[3]
an honest & misspent lifetime

If the work be foolish, it surely is not less foolish because a whole long lifetime has been honestly passed in producing it -

[p. 2] Hoity toity! my dear Henry what is all this! -

You, who are surely the typical Sapeur[4] of modern progress, guilty of the plaint I have just read on behalf of the ancient Herbert[5] and for no other reason that he is ancient! - useless indeed it [is] because of his earnestness in producing [illegible] [illegible]work pictures.

Or so it
Why this championship of work in the abstract - Work excuses itself of itcommends itself by reason of its quality - & if bad work is to be condemned - surely the more of it the more damnable - and logically [indulge]

[p. 4] Work[6] begets work - and good work especially is prolific - There is no virtue this - It is the production is insisted upon by the quality of the producer - so that by joy of the producer and in proportion to his quality

[p. 3] is not to be acquired by a life passed in producing it, is without excuse or certainly without sympathy! -

What matters is that the offender has grown old among us, and is known personally has endeared himself to many by his excellent qualities as ratepayer and neighbor -

Personally he may have claims upon his surroundings but as the producing of bad pictures as a painter he is damned forever! -

You see my Henry that it sufficeth not to be as you are in the [wisdom]

[p. 4]of this world[7] brilliant and astute - a very Daniel[8] - in your judgment of many vexed questions of a frankness & loyalty withall that makes the in your crusade against abuses, that makes of the keen litigator a most dangerous Quixot[9]! [sic]

This peculiar temperament [p. 5] gives you makes you advance rapidly gives you that general sense of right that amounts to genius and carries with it continued success in the warfare you wage. against

[p. 6] Know this O Henry that there is no such thing as English Art - you might as well talk of English Mathematics. Art is Art, and mathematics is mathematics.

What you call English Art, is not Art at all - but produce of the Market - of which there is & always has been & always will be plenty - no matter whether men [furnishing] it are called dead and called Egg or Elmore[10], or - - - or living and called - - - - whomsoever you like as you turn over the Academy catalogue -

The great truth you have to understand, is that it matters not at all whom you prefer in this long list - they all belong to the vast army of mediocrity - [p. 7] the differences between them being infinitely small (merely microscopic) as compared to the vast distance between any of them and Great -

They are the commercial travellers of commerce[11], whose works are their wares, & whose Exchange is the Academy -

They pass and are forgotten, or remain for a while in the memory of (those who) the worthies (old fogies) who knew them & cling to their faith in them, as it flatters their own place in history, famous themselves, the friends of the famous.

Speak of them if it please you with uncovered head - even as in France you would remove your hat for as [p. 8] there passes by the hearse - but remember it is from the conventional sense of awe alone, this habit of respect, and called forth by the corpse of the commonest kind! -

This document is protected by copyright.


1.  [21 August 1886?]
The final, published version of this letter has several changes to the text, and is dated 21 August 1886 (#09184). This draft is in Sketchbook (M.1145), which appears to have been used 1886/1888.

2.  Henry Labouchère
Henry Du Pré Labouchère (1831-1912), journalist and Liberal MP [more].

3.  a wellmeaning
This draft has been written over several pages, with additional phrases or paragraphs jotted down on the facing page: the intended order is not entirely clear.

4.  Sapeur
Fr., pioneer. This was misprinted as 'Sapem', a meaningless word, in the published letter (#09184), which JW complained about in another letter to Truth, published 9 September 1886 (#11410).

5.  Herbert
John Rogers Herbert (1810-1890), painter of portraits, genre and landscape [more], is the target of JW's attack (see also JW to J. E. Boehm, #08126). Herbert had exhibited eight paintings at the 118th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, Royal Academy, London, 1886, including landscapes, biblical and near-Eastern subjects, such as J. R. Herbert, Our Lord Stilling the Tempest (z196) and J. R. Herbert, The First Coming of the Sword of Islam into Spain (z199) (cat. nos. 3, 676).

6.  of this world
This passage is written in the bottom half of p. 4, below a line drawn across the page.

7.  Work
'Work ... quality' was written in the top half of p. 4, and then deleted.

8.  Daniel
'As for these four children, God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom: and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams,' Dan. 1.17. Herbert's exhibits also included J. R. Herbert, The Judgement of Daniel Against the False Elders (z198) (cat. no. 244).

9.  Quixot
Don Quixote, hero of Cervantes' novel, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605), was characterised by the rashness of his judgements and quickness of temper.

10.  Egg or Elmore
Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-1863), historical genre painter [more], and Alfred W. Elmore (1815-1881), genre and historical genre painter [more]. In the published version these names were replaced by a line.

11.  commerce
In the published version this is replaced by 'Art'.