ART / Whistler, a man of letters: The bitter feud between James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and his critics is documented in thousands of letters written and received by the artist. Dalya Alberge reports

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The Independent Culture
It's hard to imagine how Whistler ever found the time to paint. The 19th-century master who exhibited with Monet, Pissarro and Renoir wrote 5,000 letters in his adult lifetime. At that rate, vying with Van Gogh as the world's most prolific letter-writing artist, he must have sent a letter every four days for 50 years.

And the 5,000 are just the ones we know about. Whistler scholars believe there are hundreds more to be found. Most of the originals - including a further 4,000 letters written to Whistler - are at the University of Glasgow, among its superlative collection of his art and possessions. But hardly anyone outside academic circles is aware of this rich archive, let alone has read the letters.

The reason for this neglect is that only a fraction of them has ever been published, though that's not for want of people trying. For decades, no publisher could get anywhere near the archive. One of Whistler's relatives, Rosalind Bernie Philip, the youngest sister of Whistler's wife and heiress to the artist's estate, saw to that. Although she donated the bulk of the letters to Glasgow (among gifts of both documents and works of art in 1935 and 1954, and a bequest at her death in 1958), she vehemently resisted all attempts to publish (and took two biographers to court who attempted to do so).

Against that sort of opposition, historians gave up and a valuable part of art history - letters and envelopes, many covered with sketches and doodles, to dealers and collectors, family and friends including Oscar Wilde, Stephane Mallarme, Rodin and Monet - was locked away in the university library.

However, since Miss Bernie Philip's death, the university has once again turned its attention to the letters in its possession. And interest in Whistler is reawakening. As well as a massive retrospective (organised by Richard Dorment and Margaret MacDonald), opening in 1994 at the Tate Gallery, then in Paris and Washington, three biographies are being written. And the University of Glasgow - whose Whistler collection boasts 80 paintings, 180 pastels and 280 etching plates, among other works - has established a Centre for Whistler Studies. Its raison d'etre is to promote this still-underrated artist - an artist who left us some of the most beautiful Impressionist views of Venice and Trouville, and striking explorations of colour that approach abstraction and minimalism. One of the centre's main activities (apart from continuing some 30 years of cataloguing the works of art) is to publish the letters.

It is going to be a mammoth task. Not only do the 9,000 letters have to read, but to make matters worse Whistler's writing is a tiny scrawl and difficult to decipher. Researching, cataloguing, annotating and transcribing them is taking so long that Nigel Thorp, director of the centre, does not expect to publish the first of (probably) nine hefty volumes for three or four years. Thereafter publishing at a rate of perhaps a volume a year.

Whistler's contemporaries might be surprised that it has taken so long for us to recognise him as a man of letters; the artist's witty, often acerbic, correspondence was regularly published in the press. But they would also be surprised by the private man revealed behind the high-profile public figure. In his day, Whistler was widely seen as a litigious self-publicist and flamboyant dandy, arrogant and self-satisfied. It is a reputation that has stuck. 'Most historians have continued to be seduced by Whistler as a public persona,' says Thorp. 'They have been taken in by press reports, the bravura, the quarrels and the lawsuits. No one has really gone through the correspondence and evaluated the way it shows a more complex personality.'

A man who in public proclaimed a work of his was 'one of the finest specimens of high art in decoration in the kingdom', in private writes of regularly waking at night in a cold sweat about his work. In one note, he confides, 'the trouble and agonies I have had . . . and loss of time - for time is taken by Doubt . . .'

Although Whistler was to become one of the leading figures in the latter half of the last century, recognition came late - not until he was well into his fifties. His letters reflect his struggle against critics who searched his paintings in vain for narrative or form, unable to appreciate the reduction of detail to its barest minimum. In their eyes, his pictures were 'Mr Whistler's jokes' or 'disastrous failures'. One Philadelphia newspaper wrote in 1910 of 'fools enough to be interested in that eccentric humbug in Art, Whistler'. In 1871, when he exhibited his portrait of his mother, with a title, Arrangement in Grey and Black, which conveyed its abstract nature, a contemporary critic wrote, 'another of Mr Whistler's experiments. It is not a picture . . .'

Whistler frequently lashed out at his critics. Some 15 books of press cuttings, most of which he compiled, are in the Glasgow collection. Across one review, which criticises his painting, Symphony in White, for having colours in it, Whistler has scrawled: 'Can anything be more amazing than the stultified prattle of this poor person? . . . Good God, did this ass . . . in his astounding wisdom believe that a Symphony in F contains no other note but . . . a continued repetition of F F F. Fool.'

But the last straw came when John Ruskin, the art critic, attacked The Falling Rocket, describing it as 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face', and said its price, 200 guineas, was an outrage. Whistler took the critic to court. The case of Whistler versus Ruskin is the most famous and colourful trial in art history, in which, under cross-examination, Whistler's wit and flamboyance became a matter of public record. When asked how he could have charged 200 guineas for a painting that took two days to 'knock off', Whistler replied, 'I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime'. Writing to his wife years after the case, he describes his delight in staying in the room which Ruskin had used during the trial: 'I understand that he was in a most beautiful state of exasperation - tearing up much paper and tossing pens about all over the place] Delightful] Isn't it.'

Whistler won the case against Ruskin, but was awarded damages of only one farthing. Legal costs eventually bankrupted him. In a letter penned to the Fine Art Society - the dealers who sent him to Venice in 1879 with an advance of pounds 150 to produce a series of 12 etchings - he wrote: 'I am frozen . . . and you can't hold a needle with numbed fingers - and beautiful work cannot be finished with bodily agony - also I am starving - or shall be soon . . . You had better send me pounds 50 at once.' Whistler once said: 'If I had had, say, pounds 3,000 a year, what beautiful things I would have done.'

Such was his bitterness towards the London art establishment that he once stipulated that his collection should never be left to a public institution in England. Miss Bernie Philip never forgot that, and she chose Glasgow as the beneficiary of the Whistler collection partly because the city was the first public body to buy a Whistler, in 1891, when others still attacked him.

Information about the Whistler Centre, University of Glasgow on 041- 339 8855 ext 5631. Details of the Tate Gallery show on 071-821 1313. Linda Merrill's 'Pot of Paint' (Smithsonian Press, pounds 19.95) is an excellent study of the case.

(Photograph omitted)