Lot 142: Whistler Letter Sending "A Couple of Little Masterpieces" & Criticizing Ruskin
Presidential Letters, Free Franks & Speeches: Washington to Bush + Important Autographs in History, Science & the Arts
October 26, 2016
New York, NY, USALive Auction
Description: Whistler Sends Literary Editor William E. Henley: “A couple of little masterpieces – tout simplement! – New – original in every sense of the word. Dainty as few things are – and as to execution – brilliant beyond all you could ever have expected,” While Casting Aspersions on John Ruskin********** WHISTLER, JAMES A.M. (1834-1903). American painter and printmaker; creator of Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1, better known as Whistler’s Mother. ALS. (Signed with his famous “butterfly” monogram). 2pp. Oblong Small 8vo. London, N.d. (April 17, 1891). Penned on his 21 Cheyne Walk correspondence card stationery to influential literary critic, poet and editor WILLIAM E. HENLEY (1849-1903), best remembered for his poem “Invictus.” ********** “I am sending you the most lovely things – a couple of little masterpieces – tout simplement! – New – original in every sense of the word. Dainty as few things are – and as to execution – brilliant beyond all you could ever have expected – perfect little bijous! I am enchanted – If you have this sort of thing in your book, Bewick may be relegated to Ruskins ‘middle class villa with the little parlour opening on the nicely mown lawn.’ The proofs come in a seperate [sic] envelope registered that they may run no risk. And now what do you think your Financier at the back will pay for such plates – and how many would be wanted – You must point out apart from the exquisite beauty of composition and execution, that as etchings they are of that marvelous simplicity that allows of their being printed with the utmost ease – Write me a line telling me that you are pleased…” ********** An influential English painter, art critic, writer, teacher, and lecturer, John Ruskin (1819-1900) began his writing career when he came to artist J.M.W. Turner’s defense. His written justification evolved into the first volume of Modern Painters, which had as its thesis Ruskin’s belief that art should accurately depict nature, a proposition that found a receptive audience among the Pre-Raphaelites. ********** In 1877, Ruskin famously attacked Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, which had been exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery. Whistler’s espousal of “art for art’s sake,” the underlying philosophy of the Aesthetic Movement, was at odds with Ruskin’s realist philosophy. Whistler gave his paintings abstract titles to encourage the viewer to look and think beyond the representational aspect of the work. Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket featured a splatter technique that Whistler had spent much time perfecting. Ruskin’s scathing review, published in one of his Fors Clavigera pamphlets, stated, “For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, [Grosvenor Gallery founder] Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler, the victim of Ruskin’s criticism in the past, found these words intolerable and filed a lawsuit charging Ruskin with libel. Despite a verdict in Whistler’s favor, the protracted court proceedings bankrupted the painter and necessitated the sale of his art collection and recently constructed home. He continued to hold a grudge against Ruskin and in 1890 published a book, The Gentle Art Of Making Enemies, which included the lawsuit’s transcript and many of Whistler’s letters to newspapers on the subject, the publication of which led to mixed publicity for the artist. ********** Our letter paraphrases Ruskin’s 1879 thoughts on the suitability of displaying watercolors in the home: “They gave an unquestionable tone of liberal-mindedness to a suburban villa, and were the cheerfullest possible decorations for a moderate-sized breakfast-parlour opening onto a nicely-mown lawn.” ********** After tuberculosis necessitated the amputation of one of his legs and while anticipating the loss of the other, Henley penned his often-quoted poem “Invictus,” which made his reputation as a poet. (His remaining leg was saved by famed Scottish surgeon Joseph Lister.) Henley’s appearance served as the inspiration for Long John Silver in his friend Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece Treasure Island. Henley exerted considerable influence on the Victorian literary world as editor of a series of publications, including The London, which he edited from 1877-1878, and from 1889-1893, the Scots Observer (renamed the National Observer in 1891); Incidentally, Henley was an archenemy of Oscar Wilde, with whom Whistler had an ongoing, public disagreement over some words the writer appropriated from the painter. ********** Henley and Whistler’s relationship began when the editor included the artist in a series entitled Modern Men, calling Whistler “‘the Yankee with the methods of Barnum.’ The policy of the National Observer was to fight; everybody, everything, and it must be said it fought with great spirit. But it had no patience for the battles of others. Of Whistler the artist, it approved but not of Whistler the writer of letters, whom it pronounced rowdy and unpleasant,” (The Life of James McNeill Whistler, Pennell). Despite the National Observer’s negative review of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, Whistler and Henley became close friends after first meeting in person in late 1890 or early 1891. “They discovered that they had a great deal in common… [and] in their ensuing correspondence they formed virtually an exclusive mutual admiration society,” growing close over their ideas about art and their mutual love of the Seine, a favorite subject of Whistler’s paintings, (“Whistler and Henley: A Postscript,” Victorian Poetry, Newton). ********** The etchings discussed in our letter, though unidentified, are possibly those of the artist Beatrix Godwin Whistler, whom Whistler had married in 1888 and whose Goldfish is referred to elsewhere in their correspondence as “Henley’s fish.” ********** Our letter is written on the stationery of Whistler’s home at 21 Cheyne Walk, where he lived from March 1890 until his move to Paris in 1892. Also mentioned is wood engraver and illustrator Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), much admired by Ruskin. ********** Signed with Whistler’s unique butterfly signature, developed around 1869 as a symbol of the Aesthetic movement’s interest in Asian art. Our letter is published in full in The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, ed. MacDonald et. al., which includes Henley’s reply of April 18, 1891 and fixes a date on our letter. ********** Folded with an approximately two-inch closed tear affecting no text. Some light overall wear and in very good condition. Scarce with such art-related content.