The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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3rd June 2003 - An Artist's Hand

In 1908 an edition called Le caractère et la main was published in Paris. It was a collection of readings of the hands of well known people by the palmist Julien Leclercq. Whistler was one of those great men who had in his lifetime consented to have his hand photographed and analysed.

Below is the picture of Whistler's hand, with a reproduction of one page of Leclercq's text (in French), and an English translation of the whole commentary. Unfortunately Leclercq did not manage to spell the artist's name correctly; he wrongly writes 'Wisthler'.

J. Leclercq, Le caractère et la main, Paris, 1908 (GUL Sp Coll Whistler 
J. Leclercq, Le caractère et la main, Paris, 1908 (GUL Sp Coll Whistler 971)

Page 176 from 'Le caractère et la main'

"I must admit that I did not achieve this hand without some difficulty. As I was knocking at the master's studio door, I heard, after waiting a moment, a slight noise of chairs and frames being moved cautiously. I thought: ' There is someone there, I shall not have wasted my day.' However, I had to wait more and began to be concerned. Would the door be opened? I knocked again, trembling a little. The confidence needed for my kind of indiscreet undertaking was ebbing away. At last the door opened slightly, revealing a distrustful gaze. I had to make a strong case before being allowed to cross the threshold. As I was setting up my camera, I looked left and right, but in vain: the canvasses were facing the walls and there was nothing on the easel.
- Your left hand, please, my dear Master.
- Why the left, since I work with my right hand?
The response was too characteristic to allow me to refuse. So was the hand. I photographed the back and the palm.
The fingers are very agile. At their roots, the pads are not much in evidence; but they are fuller at the points of Mars, the Moon and Venus. The hand is not soft, but firm rather, even somewhat dry.
Long little finger, middling thumb, index finger short. From this, therefore: irreducible independence, normal will-power, no need to control others.
Social characteristics [les qualités brillantes] are lacking in warmth, or show it only slightly. But extreme vivacity and surprising skill. Wisthler is a great artist and has a lively intellect. His mind is sarcastic and often aggressive; in any case, not indulgent. That is what we would deduce from a hand like his, a brilliant hand with agile fingers, somewhat dry and tense. With age, such a character becomes prickly, not very approachable. I should note that, in Pernechio's analysis of nails, long thin nails indicate a subtle mind, insolence.
This hand is that of a refined and distinguished person, whose sharp intellect threatens a victim with accidents.
I will not dwell on Wisthler's brilliant and strong artistic qualities, because what makes an artist great or secondary has to do with an imponderable element in his make-up, and because a man's hand, being made of less subtle and less mysterious matter than his brain, is not subject to these nuances." (pp. 175-76, La main de Wisthler [sic])

Whistler's hand
Whistler's hand