The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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28th February 2003 - Whistler and Henry James

On 28 February 1916, the novelist Henry James died in London aged 72. Like Whistler, he was a member of the American expatriate community in Europe and they had many friends in common. James settled in London in 1877, and that year, in his review of the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition, he stated 'I will not speak of Mr. Whistler's 'Nocturnes in Black and Gold' 'because I frankly confess they do not amuse me' (The Painter's Eye: Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts, Cambridge, H.U.P., 1956, p. 143).

After a visit to Whistler's home at 2 Lindsey Row, James called him 'a queer little Londonized Southerner [who] paints abominably. But his breakfasts are easy and pleasant, and he has tomatoes and buckwheat cakes' (The Letters of Henry James: Volume II, 1875-1883, ed. Leon Edel, Cambridge, H.U.P., 1975, pp. 167-8). However, by the beginning of the 1880s, Whistler and James had become friends and it was James who introduced Whistler to Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac on 3 July 1885.

James later became more appreciative of Whistler's work, and on seeing Arrangement in Black, No. 3: Sir Henry Irving as Philip II of Spain at the Grafton Galleries in 1897, James declared: 'to turn from his picture to the rest of the show 'is to drop from the world of distinction, of perception, of beauty and mystery and perpetuity, into - well, a very ordinary place' (The Painter's Eye, p. 258-9).

Whistler also enjoyed James's writing, and after a gift of a signed copy of The Spoils of Poynton (1897), wrote to James praising 'the dear old lady who had only robbed, and hid a bit, and burgled in the glorious cause of Old Blue!' (GUL Whistler J26). He had recognised a fellow-Aesthete in the character of Mrs Gereth. James was delighted 'to have pleased you, to have touched you', for 'the arts are one, and with the artist the artist communicates' (GUL Whistler J25). James became a regular visitor to 110 Rue du Bac in the 1890s, and his 1903 novel The Ambassadors uses his impressions to describe the house and garden of the sculptor Gloriani, based on Whistler.

Unlike Whistler, who although never returning to America did not renounce his citizenship, James became a British citizen in 1915, due to his disgust at America not entering World War I. Just a few months later, however, he died at his home at Carlyle Mansions, Cheyne Walk, the same street in which Whistler had lived from 1863 and painted his first views of the Thames.

(Ailsa Boyd)