The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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7th February 2003 - Podsnaps and Pecksniffs

In an article intended for publication in The Century Magazine in 1898, journalist Gustav Kobbé records the remembrances of an old class-mate of Whistler, General Averell, that the artist "had no the quick and vivid perception and appreciation of the best literature - especially that in which the humorous and pathetic phases of life might be mostly found. Dickens was his nearest favorite..." (GUL Whistler K20). It has been documented that Whistler read a good deal of Dickens' work while studying at West Point Military Academy.

Later in life, when seeking sarcastic caricatures for various society opponents, Whistler often utilized characters from Dickens. He accuses Oscar Wilde of dressing like the dandy Mr. Mantalini from Nicholas Nickleby (Gentle Art 1890, p. 243); in the spring of 1881 he accuses Francis Seymour Haden of having a "Pecksniffian whine", referring to the sanctimonious surveyor and architect Seth Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit (GUL Whistler H46); and the art critic Frederick Wedmore is branded a "poor old Podsnap" in November 1902 (GUL Whistler F312) after the self-satisfied character of the same name from Our Mutual Friend. In fact subsequent to having made a break from London to live in Paris in the 1890s, Whistler frequently labelled all Britons as 'Podsnaps and Pecksniffs': in February 1892 London is peopled with "Pecksniffs and Podsnaps" (GUL Whistler W995); and later that year Whistler remarks that Londoners "have the national lightness of their own Podsnap!" (LCMS PWC 2/55/1).

The novelist Charles Dickens was born on this day in 1812. One of Whistler's biographers, Hesketh Pearson, notes that in the end Whistler "could find no possible excuse for Dickens, whose realism and emotionalism must have made him feel uncomfortable" (The Man Whistler, 1952, p. 91). It is not thought that Dickens and Whistler ever met.