BOOK REVIEW / Butterfly with a sting: James McNeill Whistler talked his way into 'brilliant' society with a tongue sharpened by disappointment: a new biography coincides with a major retrospective of his work

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HE DIDN'T have a particularly happy or successful life, but it's hard to feel sympathy for Jimmy Whistler, as his cronies called him. Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval refer to him as 'James' all the way through their biography, James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth. The Christian name feels wrong, not familiar but pompous and respectful. One lesson of this book is that Whistler has been given too much respect. I grant that he had eminence as an artist. As a man, though, he was vain and treacherous - Jimmy the little magnifico, Jimmy the untrustworthy.

Whistler retailed so many untruths about himself that earlier biographies have all been unreliable. In this one we have a sound feeling that fact has been separated from myth. Particularly convincing is the account of the painter's early years. He was born in Massachusetts in 1834, son of an army officer who became a railway engineer. This work took him to Russia, so young Whistler first experienced life and art in St Petersburg. When his father suddenly died the boy was with relatives in England. He might have stayed here, but his mother wanted to return to America, where the unmilitary lad followed family tradition and enrolled at West Point military academy. He was a useless cadet, but his mother had to do something with him, and the Army seemed the safest career.

Cosmopolitan but rootless, sophisticated but a failure in America's terms, Whistler got out of the army and his native land and never went back. Bravado and Murger's Scenes de la vie de Boheme took him to Paris, where he lived on subs from his weary mother and other relatives. The crucial good fortune of Whistler's life was that he arrived in Paris at the dawn of Impressionism. Another benison was that Whistler was not only supported by his relatives but inspired by them. The important figure was his English brother-in-law, Francis Seymour Hayden, a wealthyish doctor who was a gifted amateur artist and a connoisseur of etchings. When Whistler was broke, Hayden helped him out. If he fell ill, Hayden hastened to his Paris bedside. When Whistler took up etching, Hayden volunteered technical advice and his knowledge of the market.

Another advantage of Hayden's friendship, I surmise, was that he was boring. Therefore he was a foil. From this well-meaning man Whistler learnt that he could be faster and smarter than anyone else. If his brush failed him - as often happened - his tongue could always assert superiority. But this was only possible in English. Whistler's French could not carry the wit, aphorism and repartee that he began to cultivate around 1860. Nigel Thorp's Whistler on Art, mainly a book of letters, has some missives to the painter Fantin-Latour in their original French, the very long sentences punctuated by hyphens. The tendency of Whistler's English was toward that briefest weapon of the aesthete and dandy: the epigram. He always retained an American accent. I wonder whether some of his mature verbal display, in Chelsea saloons or the court in which he faced Ruskin's lawyer, was owed to one kind of tough, laconic American speech. He would have learnt it at West Point, perhaps in self-defence.

Whistler's speech patterns are significant because he imposed himself on artistic London society by talk. His English fame was acquired at the high point of the 'brilliant', mannered and theatrical conversation that began with Swinburne in the early 1860s, was last heard in the accents of Max Beerbohm in the 1950s, and is therefore contemporary with the rise and fall of aestheticism. I write 'brilliant' in inverted commas because etincelant pronouncements were so often factitious, then as now. However, the importance of being brilliant was paramount in Whistler's English circles. How well and how ruthlessly he played the clever game] His foe in talk was Oscar Wilde. Oscar's conversation was meant to delight, and it made people love him. Jimmy's talk was for dominance, and his ripostes were feared.

Both men's confidence that they could win by their talk landed them with disasters in court, Wilde taking on Regina and morality, Whistler taking on Ruskin. It might have been better if they had been in the same dock, with some silly insult to dispute, and with a jury of publishers and journalists. For the consequence of their fame in society was publicity in newspapers (often evening papers, on the streets before people went to the theatre and dinner) and the publication of quick books that depended on fame, like Whistler's The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, which now reappears in a facsimile of its original 1890 edition.

In this unpleasant book (more than a century later I rise to Whistler's characteristic bait, provocation of dislike) he presents himself more as personality than as artist. Things are said about art, but only as gibes. First you think the book is merely about scoring points, then you realise its deep driving force is jealousy. Doesn't the title The Gentle Art of Making Enemies sound like a play of the 1890s, perhaps one by Wilde? The book is half-dramatic. Through snippets, press cuttings and telegrams (these last a great way for society aesthetes to snipe at each other), which Whistler annotates, it brings in such people as Ruskin and Wilde as though they were merely actors on Whistler's stage. Of course he always triumphs, since every final riposte is kept for himself.

Thus the to-and-fro wit and humanity of Wilde's theatre is diminished. Why did Whistler not insist on his prominence in an area where Wilde could not compete, painting? This puzzle is only explained by Whistler's genuine diffidence before contemporary French art. Without prejudging the Tate retrospective opening on 13 October, it can be said that Whistler was not in the same class as the French painters he met in Paris in the late 1850s. I rate him well below his comrade Fantin-Latour; also below, for instance, another provincial painter who had the same interests, the German Wilhelm Leibl. With the important painters that Whistler knew, Courbet, Degas and Manet, there is no comparison at all. While they inspired him, they also taught him that he would never be a truly fine artist. Whistler on Art does not make clear what a good eye he had: not for art in general, not at all for sculpture, but for the qualities of those around him. The canny realisation of his own deficiencies encouraged him to leave Paris for London. He knew that in England there were a satisfyingly large number of minor artists who might be outpainted. Furthermore, as Anderson and Koval document, London's commercial opportunities beckoned. Some of the best chapters of their biography describe not only Whistler's personal life - his mistresses, his mother and his friends - but also his professional transactions, as a man making his way in the emerging British avant-garde.

And because Anderson and Koval are professional art historians, Whistler's work is made a proper part of the narrative of his life. They are also good at explaining his relations with Swinburne, the English poet who understood his talent as no French writer did, and who probably assisted his London career as much with general encouragement as with introductions. Whistler in the 1860s is a far more genuine man than he became later on. It's more difficult to explain the Whistler of the 1870s, the artist as malevolent butterfly (his new signature), the pseudo-aristocratic aesthetic gadfly of Chelsea and Mayfair, the man who delighted in making enemies rather than friends, unsparing in his hostilities - and who went to war with a libel case.

Inevitably, the high point of any Whistler biography must be his confrontation with Ruskin in 1878. It's as though all his life and aesthetics had one purpose, to prepare him for appearing in court. He said almost as much himself. When asked how he justified a price of 200 guineas for a canvas he had taken two days to paint, he responded: 'I ask it for the experience of a lifetime.' The answer is deservedly historic. For Ruskin, however, the Whistler affair was a minor episode. The libel occurred in Fors Clavigera, his monthly letters addressed to 'the workmen and labourers of England', issued between 1871 and 1884. The half-million words of Fors, which is Ruskin's masterpiece, are not only a summary and adjustment of the many more millions of words he had written since beginning Modern Painters in the early 1840s; in Fors we may discover a commentary on 19th-century society and culture that make Whistler's thoughts on art and life appear puny, as in truth they were.

Anderson and Koval do not understand Fors, so their biography lacks a large perspective. Like their subject, they forget that art is a matter of achievement. The final part of the book is saddening, because Whistler seemed to imagine that every new dispute or feud somehow raised his stature. Really, he suffered not from pride but from embitterment, the occupational disease of failed artists. How he ever gained disciples and hagiographers is beyond me, though there were such people and, in a faint way, there still are. The personality of the man they followed is seen in his famous 'Ten o' Clock' lecture, delivered in 1885 and now reprinted in both The Gentle Art and Thorp's anthology. This should have been a mature statement of Whistler's aestheticism. Instead it is scratchy, disjointed, without development and with little aesthetic tone. Small wonder that Mallarme found it impossible to translate into French.

The notorious libel case brought by Whistler against John Ruskin (above), was caused by this passsage in 'Fors Clavigera' on 2 July 1877:

'For Mr Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, 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 wilful 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.'

The verdict was returned in favour of the plaintiff, Whistler. He was awarded damages of one farthing.

'James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth' by Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval is published by John Murray at pounds 25.

'The Gentle Art of Making Enemies' by James McNeill Whistler, Heinemann pounds 20.

'Whistler on Art: Selected Letters and Writings 1849-1903' ed Nigel Thorp, Carcanet pounds 9.95.

The Whistler / Ruskin case will be restaged in 'Omnibus', BBC 1, on 11 October at 10.20pm.

'James McNeill Whistler' opens at the Tate Gallery, London SW1, on 13 October.

(Photographs omitted)