Mother Whistler’s Son

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Mother Whistler

Whistler’s mother worried about her son. James McNeill Whistler was not your average 19th century artist.

James McNeill Whistler and the Case for Beauty, an unwieldy title, makes an interesting little documentary on his life and work by director Karen Thomas who offers the viewer more than a few surprises.

For openers, though he was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, he spent most of his childhood in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father worked for the czar!  Whistler was not your average boy in the 1840s. After he tried West Point as a cadet and failed, he moved to France and England, taking up a brush and a pot of paint for the rest of his life.

He was, however, the epitome of an American Oscar Wilde. He cultivated being dandy.

Yes, with a bleached streak of white hair in his massive curly locks, often tied with a red ribbon bow, he predated outrageous art for art’s sake by decades.

He was wild before Oscar.

Witty, snippy, and living the life of a bon vivant ahead of his time by a 100-years, he held Sunday morning salons that were the delight of London. He had collector rivalries with Dante Gabriel Rossetti over blue and white porcelain. And, he painted his mother for instant fame. Whistler would have loved social media.

He was a young man still when the old lady showed up in London, forcing him to clean up his act for a time. If you ever wondered why that mundane painting caused a stir, you likely will learn from this film.

Whistler knew how to stay in the public’s eye and attract the attention of rich patrons. After all, that was the name of the game. He clashed with critics frequently, extolling the virtues of art and the lack of knowledge of critics.

He took famous British art critic John Ruskin to court for libel when he claimed Whistler was overcharging for his art.

Those were the days when civilized men learned the powers of litigation. Whistler was ahead of his time that way too.