Key describes Whistler as "painfully near-sighted," and always sketching, even on the walls as he went downstairs.
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Though in Washington only a few months, he left the impression of his indifference to work except in the one form in which work interested him—his art. If nothing else were known of this period, it would be memorable for the technical instruction he received in the Coast Survey. His work was the drawing and etching of Government topographical plans and maps, which have to be made with the utmost accuracy and sharpness of line. His training, therefore, was in the hardest and most perfect school of etching in the world, a fact never until now pointed out.
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The work was dull, mechanical, and he sometimes relieved the dullness by filling empty spaces on the plates with sketches. Captain Benham told him plainly, Whistler said, that he was not there to spoil Government coppers, and ordered all the designs to be immediately erased. This was Whistler's account to us. But Mr. Key, in his Recollections of Whistler , published in the Century Magazine April , says that these sketches were confined to the experimental plate given to Whistler, as to all beginners, and he adds that he watched Whistler through the process of preparing and etching it.
Only two plates have been as yet, or probably ever will be, found in the office that can be attributed, wholly or in part, to Whistler: the Coast Survey, No. The Coast Survey, No. Whistler was unable to confine himself to the Government requirements. In the lower design, chimneys are gaily smoking, and on the upper part of the plate several figures, obviously reminiscent of prints and drawings, are sketched: an old peasant woman; a man in a tall Italian hat, or, Mr. Key says, Whistler [Pg 32] himself as a Spanish hidalgo; another in a Sicilian bonnet; a mother and child in an oval, meant for Mrs.
Partington and Ike, as Mr. Key remembers; a battered French soldier; a bearded monk in a cowl. The drawing is schoolboy-like, though it shows certain observation, but the biting is remarkable. The little figures are bitten as well and in the same way as La Vieille aux Loques , etched three or four years afterwards; to look at them is to know that Whistler was a consummate etcher technically before he left the Coast Survey. There is no advance in the biting of the French series.
So astonishing is this mastery that, if the technique in some of the French plates were not similar, one would be tempted to doubt whether Whistler etched those little figures in Washington, especially as the plate is unsigned. The plate escaped by chance. Key, to whom it was given to clean off and use again, asked to keep it, and it was sold to him for the price of old copper. It is still in existence. The second plate, Anacapa Island , is signed with several names. Whistler etched the view of the eastern extremity of the island, for many lines on the rocky shore resemble the work in the French series, and also the two flights of birds which, though they enliven the design, have no topographical value.
This plate was finished and published in the Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey, There is said to be a third plate, a chart of the Delaware River, but we have never seen it and can find out nothing about it. One other record of Whistler at the Coast Survey remains, but of a different kind. He liked to tell the story. Captain Benham used to come and look through the small magnifying glass each draughtsman in this department had to work with.
One day, Whistler etched a little devil on the glass, and Captain Benham looked through it at the plate. Whistler described himself to us, lying full length on a sort of mattress or trestle, so as not to touch the copper.
But he saw Captain Benham give a jump. The captain said nothing.
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He pocketed the glass, and that was all Whistler heard of it until many years afterwards, when, one day, an old gentleman appeared at his studio in Paris, and by way of introduction took from his watch-chain a tiny magnifying glass, and asked Whistler to look through it—"and," he said, "well—we recognised each other perfectly. Captain Benham is dead, but his son, Major H.
Benham, writes [Pg 33] us: "I have heard my father tell the story. He was very fond of Whistler, and thought most highly of his great ability—or rather genius, I should say. He resigned in February His brother, George Whistler, and Mr. Winans tried again to make him enter the locomotive works in Baltimore. He was twenty-one, old enough to insist upon what he wanted; and what he wanted was to study art. Already at St. Petersburg his ability had struck his mother's friends.
At Pomfret and West Point he owed to his drawing whatever distinction he had attained. And there had been things done outside of school and Academy and office work, he told us—"portraits of my cousin Annie Denny and of Tom Winans, and many paintings at Stonington that Stonington people remembered so well they looked me up in Paris afterwards.
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Indeed, all the while, ever since my Russian days, there had been always the thought of art, and when at last I told the family that I was going to Paris, they said nothing. There was no difficulty. They just got me a ticket. I was to have three hundred and fifty dollars seventy pounds a year, and my stepbrother, George Whistler, who was one of my guardians, sent it to me after that every quarter. Whistler arrived in Paris in the summer of There he fell among friends. The American Legation was open to the son of Major Whistler. Lady Ritchie Miss Thackeray writes:.
I always enjoyed talking to him when we were both hobbledehoys at Paris; he used to ask me to dance, and rather to my disappointment perhaps, for, much as I liked talking to him, I preferred dancing, we used to stand out while the rest of the party polkaed and waltzed by [Pg 34] There was a certain definite authority in the things he said, even as a boy.
I can't remember what they were, but I somehow realised that what he said mattered. When I heard afterwards of his fanciful freaks and quirks, I could not fit them in with my impression of the wise young oracle of my own age. George Whistler wanted him to go to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but there is no record of his having been admitted. It was not extraordinary, as some have said, that Whistler should have gone there; it would have been extraordinary had he stayed away. He arrived in Paris when Courbet, slighted at the International, was defying convention with his first show and his first "Manifesto," and many of the younger men were throwing over Romanticism for Realism.
Whistler found himself more in sympathy with the followers of Courbet than with Gleyre's pupils, and he became so intimate with the group, among whom were Fantin and Degas, who studied under Lecocq de Boisbaudran, that it is sometimes thought he must have worked in that school. But on his arrival in Paris the young American had heard neither of Lecocq de Boisbaudran nor Courbet, and Gleyre was the popular teacher.
Fantin-Latour and M. Duret both have said that they seldom heard Whistler speak of Gleyre's. When we asked him about it, he only recalled the dignified principles upon which it was conducted. There was not even the case of the nouveau "If a man was a decent fellow, and would sing his song, and take a little chaff, he had no trouble. One morning, Whistler told us, he came to the studio late, "and there were all the students working away very hard, the unpopular one among them, and there, at the end of the room, on the model's stand was an enormous catafalque, the unpopular one's name on it in big letters.
And no one said a word. But that killed him. He was never again seen in the place. Gleyre was by no means colourless as a teacher. He is remembered as the successor of David and the Classicists, but he held theories disquieting to academic minds. He taught that before a picture was [Pg 35] begun the colours should be arranged on the palette: in this way, he said, difficulties were overcome, for attention could be given solely to the drawing and modelling on canvas in colour. He taught also that ivory-black is the base of tone. He only developed methods, misunderstood by those British prophets who have said he had but enough knowledge for his own needs.
Leighton, in , was studying at Couture's, developing his theory that "the best dodge is to be a devil of a clever fellow," and Mrs.
Barrington says he made Whistler's acquaintance at the time and admired Whistler's etchings. But Whistler never recalled Leighton among his fellow students, though he spoke often with affection of Thomas Armstrong, who worked at Ary Scheffer's, and Aleco Ionides, not an art student but studying, no one seemed to know what or where. This is the group in Du Maurier's novel of Paris student life, Trilby.
It is regrettable that Du Maurier cherished his petty spite against Whistler for twenty-five years and then printed it, and so wrecked what Whistler imagined a genuine friendship. Sir Edward J. Poynter remains, and also Mr. Luke Ionides, who was then often in Paris. He has given us his impressions of Whistler at the time:. My younger brother was with a tutor, and had made friends with Jimmie. He was just twenty-one years old, full of life and go, always ready for fun, good-natured and good-tempered. He wore a peculiar straw hat, slightly on the side of his head—it had a low crown and a broad brim.
Whistler etched himself in this hat, which startled even artists and students, and became a legend in the Latin Quarter.
Rowley wrote us: "It was in that I knew Whistler, [Pg 36] and a most amusing and eccentric fellow he was, with his long, black, thick, curly hair, and large felt hat with a broad black ribbon round it. I remember on the wall of the atelier was a representation of him, I believe done by Du Maurier, a sketch of him, then a fainter one, and then merely a note of interrogation—very clever it was and very like the original. In those days he did not work hard, and I have a faint recollection of seeing a head painted by him in deep Rembrandtish tones which was thought very good indeed.
He was always smoking cigarettes, which he made himself, and his droll sayings caused us no end of fun. I don't think he stayed long in any rooms.