While he began his career concentrated on cultivating his reputation in Europe, James Abbott McNeill Whistler became particularly well-known and adored by the American public throughout his lifetime.1 Howard Risatti, “Music and the Development of Abstraction in America: The Decade Surrounding the Armory Show,” Art Journal 39, no. 1 (1979): 9, accessed April 6, 2020. doi:10.2307/776322. The United States lacked both famous artists and a longstanding artistic tradition, weakening its potential art scene and making it hard for one to grow. In tandem with the undeveloped market, after the Civil War the country’s demand for contemporary art grew stronger as the spending power of the Industrialists did as well.2 Grischka Petri, Arrangement in Business the Art Markets and the Career of James McNeill Whistler (Hildesheim: Olms, 2011), 458. Hence, when James McNeill Whistler became a global celebrity after the Ruskin v. Whistler trial,3 A two day trial that took the press by storm worldwide, Whistler v. Ruskin was a trial in the English courts wherein Whistler sued John Ruskin for libel. The prominent art critic had published a letter in which he said Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) wasn’t proper art, saying, “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.” Emphasizing the idea that buyers pay for an artist’s experience and perspective, Whistler won the case. He received an inconsequential sum of money, and both he and Ruskin were negatively affected: Whistler was bankrupt by the trial and Ruskin’s critiques were no longer accepted as fact but as mere subjective opinions. Demie Kim, “When James Abbott McNeill Whistler Sued His Harshest Critic—and Won,” Artsy, Oct 30, 2018, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-sued-harshest-critic-won. he filled a demand in the domestic market by becoming a contemporary American Master. Whistler was highly attuned to the press and often utilized it to build his reputation, making him quick to realize that the American press exploded with news of the Massachusetts-born son after his trial.4 Petri, 464. The American press had viewed Whistler’s legal action against Ruskin to be a marketing tool, a kind of advertisement that Americans felt significantly more comfortable with than Europeans.5 Petri, 466,470. The trial had proved his value as an artist and shot his Nocturnes in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) into a new height of fame,6 Even though it rendered the work impossible to sell on the market. “When James Abbott McNeill Whistler Sued His Harshest Critic—and Won.” turning him into an icon of the New World tradition.7 Sarah Burns, “Old Maverick to Old Master: Whistler in the Public Eye in Turn-of-the-Century America,” American Art Journal 22, no. 1 (1990): 39, accessed April 6, 2020. doi:10.2307/1594555. Though Whistler had not set foot in the United States since his childhood, he seemed to reflect the American spirit in a way that caused the country to strongly identify with him. Beyond coming from a respectable New England family,8 “Old Maverick to Old Master: Whistler in the Public Eye in Turn-of-the-Century America,”46. Whistler and his hunger for success in the arts was not seen as undignified the way it was in Europe, but instead congruent with the nation’s ethos.9 “Old Maverick to Old Master: Whistler in the Public Eye in Turn-of-the-Century America,” 46, 41, 45. Through his legal success, scandal, and a little bit of art, James McNeill Whistler was gaining a significant amount of notoriety and prestige in the United States. He took advantage of this success, coordinating with the gallerists such as Hermann Wunderlich and Edward G. Kennedy of H. Wunderlich & Company to promote himself in New York City and across the United States, currying favor among American artists, critics, and collectors.10 Petri, 469, 470. Though not necessarily intentional on Whistler’s behalf, the ricochet of this notoriety is one of the many elements that contributed to the growth of the American art scene, especially within New York. His presence normalized the “American Artist,” making art a viable career path for Americans to pursue. Similarly, he became an artist that fueled the American art world by cultivating elite experiences with various institutions and galleries for a stateside audience, and catering to the demand for contemporary art and contributing to the American art scene.
One of the most important effects Whistler’s fame had on the country’s market was bolstering the reputation of the American artist to the extent that becoming an “artist” as an American became a more feasible career path. Prior to Whistler, there were very few continental great masters for Americans to look to, leading most serious American artists such as Marie Cassatt and Julian Alden Weir moving to cities like Paris in order to pursue an arts education in a well-respected academy.11A superior arts education was not the only reason why many Americans moved to these cities: some artists also did this in order to live in more liberal societies. Whistler was the most famous of these Americans abroad, moving into the novel role of a celebrity. Though Whistler never set foot in the United States after his rise to fame,12 Petri, 468. around the end of the nineteenth century, The New York Times reported that the arts had become overcrowded in New York, Chicago, and Boston.13“Old Maverick to Old Master: Whistler in the Public Eye in Turn-of-the-Century America,” 36. They wrote that the influx of American artists was a product of the, “rising status of the profession and the decline of parental opposition.”14“Old Maverick to Old Master: Whistler in the Public Eye in Turn-of-the-Century America,” 36. Part of this boom is attributable to the growth of American art schools and the institutionalization of arts in museums, but as Professor of Art History Sarah Burns notes, some of this prominence of “the artist” should be attributed to Whistler.15“Old Maverick to Old Master: Whistler in the Public Eye in Turn-of-the-Century America,” 47. James McNeill Whistler was as famous as anyone in the United States through his profession. His prominence indicated that becoming an “artist” as an American was no longer synonymous with poor and anonymous. There were other models for this kind of artist, but Whistler in particular became an important point of reference for the model of the American artists.16 “Old Maverick to Old Master: Whistler in the Public Eye in Turn-of-the-Century America,” 47. These artmakers could point to a figure as a feasible representation of their potential success, versus accept the impossibility of success as an American in the arts. Another important impact Whistler had on American artists came through raising the price threshold that Americans were willing to pay American artists. Prior to this, American collectors were not used to paying as much money for art produced in their country, even wealthy ones.17Diana Seave Greenwald, “Colleague Collectors: A Statistical Analysis of Artists’ Collecting Networks in Nineteenth-Century New York,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 17, no. 1, accessed April 5, 2020, https://doi.org/10.29411/ncaw.2018.17.1.14. Most European artists of even moderate success charged significantly more than American artists of comparatively great success.18 “Colleague Collectors: A Statistical Analysis of Artists’ Collecting Networks in Nineteenth-Century New York.” In contrast, Whistler’s charged exorbitant prices and insisted on wildly expensive fanfare at his exhibitions, creating full installations or “experiences” for visitors to his shows through drapery and color schemes. Though at times these shows were quite harshly received in Europe and these prices were considered far too high in the states,19 Petri, 470. Whistler’s prices and productions likely also introduced greater comfort with Americans paying higher prices for American art. Though there is no evidence to show that Whistler’s prices encouraged American artists perhaps to charge more for their works, it possibly prepared American collectors to pay steeper prices for works by introducing a higher price threshold for domestic art. As collectors viewed Whistler as the highest level of American art, his steep prices would not have meant that all artists could charge said amount for their works, only that American art could have more monetary value than had been thought, and thus great domestic art could merit more money. In summary, Whistler’s career allowed American Artists to pursue the career path with a relatively realistic goal of “success” in the image of Whistler.
Whistler’s most important role in the American art scene was arguably entering his art into the American art scene with all the pageantry of his European shows, invigorating buyers and gallerists by bringing fanfare to the American setting, especially in New York City. Fueled by industrialists,20 Petri, 462. the domestic market started to boom in the late twentieth century when collectors realized that art would be a stable investment.21 Petri, 461. However, while American artists themselves were quite inclined to buy each other’s art,22 “Colleague Collectors: A Statistical Analysis of Artists’ Collecting Networks in Nineteenth-Century New York.” the lack of established academies or artistic institutions in the country meant that American art was viewed as a lesser kind of art in respect to European art. In tandem with the absence of well-known American artists, there was a huge fear that European works sold in the states were forged. While there were some trusted galleries and dealers of this kind of art, they were few and far between across the country.23 “Theron J. Blakeslee,” American Art News, March 14, 1914, XII edition. online. Consequently, many major stateside collectors who could afford to would acquire works directly from specific dealers with connections abroad such as Samuel Avery or travel to Europe to buy high quality art versus go to American art galleries, much less trust American Art galleries.24 “Colleague Collectors: A Statistical Analysis of Artists’ Collecting Networks in Nineteenth-Century New York.” More a collection of points of influence than a full-fledged network in the way Paris or London was, New York City was becoming the center for paintings in this emerging market. Thus, when Whistler branched out from dealers and connected with various institutions across the United States, he formed a particularly strong bond with the New York based H. Wunderlich & Co.25 “He” not only indicates Whistler, but his wife Beatrice Whistler. She was an agent of sorts for Whistler, maintaining business relations with H. Wunderlich & Company along with other galleries and institutions for her husband through letters. Upon making contact with the artist in 1883, the gallery was more than willing to produce Whistler’s exhibitions in New York.26 Petri, 467. They began with reproducing Whistler’s show originally at the Fine Art Society, Arrangement in White & Yellow, in New York. They later reproduced his “Notes” – “Harmonies” – “Nocturnes” show after the Ruskin v. Whistler trial, allowing Americans to view the famous Nocturnes in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.27 “The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler: The Correspondence,” University of Glasgow, Accessed April 6, 2020, https://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence/biog/display/?bid=Wund_H. These exhibitions wowed American audiences with their curation: the gallery space was covered in drapery and items in thematic colors that coordinated with the paintings. H. Wunderlich & Co. also reproduced catalogues stamped with Whistler’s signature butterfly,28 “The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler: The Correspondence.” bringing a stylish European experience of Whistlerian curation–albeit better received by American critics–to the states. “Notes” – “Harmonies” – “Nocturnes” was especially important, as Wunderlich & Co. made Whistler’s second and last show in the city, “the chief event of this year’s art season in New York.”29 Petri, 469. Though the home-base for this show was New York City, “Notes” – “Harmonies” – “Nocturnes” went on to travel to five major American cities.30 Petri, 467. The introduction of these shows to the states was key to development of the American market due to the connection they made to Europe, allowing audiences to feel elite and engage in cosmopolitan activities by attending them31Jan Dirk Baetens, and Dries Lyna. “Introduction: Towards an International History of the Nineteenth-Century Art Trade,” In Art Crossing Borders: The Internationalisation of the Art Market in the Age of Nation States, 1750-1914, edited by Baetens Jan Dirk and Lyna Dries, Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019: 10. doi:10.1163/j.ctvrxk3fq.6. and creating the spectacle-event culture essential to any art scene. Whistler’s work became especially well known by collectors through these means, and commercially the exhibition was more successful than the original show in London.32 Petri, 467. From these shows, collectors from various cities in the United States bought Whistlers, including the most powerful collectors of the time such as Isabelle Stuart Gardner.33William Tyre, “Hermann Wunderlich – The Story of a House,” Glessner House, August 5, 2019, online. and “First Venice Set: The Little Venice,” Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, online. The spread of these purchases in tandem with the high profile collectors buying this art indicate that Whistler’s work with stateside galleries and institutions helped build a viable network of galleries and institutions for collectors within the United States. American institutions and galleries were able to provide legitimate blue chip contemporary art for domestic collectors. As his main point of contact with the United States was located in NYC and he did more shows in the city than anywhere else in the country,34“The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler: Search for Exhibitions,”University of Glasgow. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence/exhibit/. Whistler’s work particularly fueled New York City’s art world. America’s greatest living artist was doing most of his shows in NYC, drawing in collectors and building up the reputation of NYC galleries via exhibitions and connections, aiding in the creation of spaces within the city to buy legitimate art.
In the nineteenth century, the groundwork was laid for the development of New York as the center of American’s market by the 1913 Armory Show,35The 1913 Armory Show exposed Americans to contemporary European art. This work was shocking to American audiences, especially Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), arguably bringing a new age of Art criticism and Art production to the USA. Frank Anderson Trapp, “The 1913 Armory Show in Retrospect,” College Art Journal 17, no. 3 (1958): 294, online. and the center of the art world by the mid-twentieth century. There are a large number of factors that converged upon New York City and the United States in general that contributed to the rise of America in the art world–from the establishment of schools to trusted galleries like the Macbeth Galleries. Among these factors, one should include James McNeill Whistler. Outside of creating a name as an “American Artist” abroad, Whistler made a notable impact on the art network in the continental United States: he paved the path for more Americans to pursue art through his celebrity and created connections with art professionals in the United States to promote his work stateside, fueling the American art scene.36 “Music and the Development of Abstraction in America: The Decade Surrounding the Armory Show,”9. His favor in the states was evident how his work sold comparatively better in the States than in highly developed art markets of the time such as France,37 Petri, 458. and how his theories on art became significantly more widespread across the United States than other Europeans of his time.38 “Music and the Development of Abstraction in America: The Decade Surrounding the Armory Show,” 9. His lasting effect was monumental: he became a standard of excellence, affecting how critics judged art and American artists produced for years,39 “Music and the Development of Abstraction in America: The Decade Surrounding the Armory Show,” 8. shaping the art scene in his “home” country.
Baetens, Jan Dirk, and Dries Lyna. “Introduction: Towards an International History of the Nineteenth-Century Art Trade.” In Art Crossing Borders: The Internationalisation of the Art Market in the Age of Nation States, 1750-1914, edited by Baetens Jan Dirk and Lyna Dries, 1-14. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019. Accessed April 6, 2020. doi:10.1163/j.ctvrxk3fq.6.
Burns, Sarah. “Old Maverick to Old Master: Whistler in the Public Eye in Turn-of-the-CenturyAmerica.” American Art Journal 22, no. 1 (1990): 29-49. Accessed April 6, 2020. doi:10.2307/1594555.
Diana Seave Greenwald, “Colleague Collectors: A Statistical Analysis of Artists’ Collecting Networks in Nineteenth-Century New York,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 17, no. 1 (Spring 2018), https://doi.org/10.29411/ncaw.2018.17.1.14 (accessed April 5, 2020).
“First Venice Set: The Little Venice.” First Venice Set: The Little Venice | Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Accessed April 20, 2020. https://www.gardnermuseum.org/experience/collection/23857#gref.
Kim, Demie. “When James Abbott McNeill Whistler Sued His Harshest Critic—and Won.” Artsy. Oct 30, 2018. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-sued-harshest-critic-won.
Petri, Grischka. Arrangement in Business the Art Markets and the Career of James McNeill Whistler. Hildesheim: Olms, 2011.
Risatti, Howard. “Music and the Development of Abstraction in America: The Decade
Surrounding the Armory Show.” Art Journal39, no. 1 (1979): 8-13. Accessed April 6, 2020. doi:10.2307/776322
“Theron J. Blakeslee.” American Art News. March 14, 1914, XII edition. https://books.google.com/books?id=-cFIAQAAMAAJ&pg=RA3-PA14&lpg=RA3-PA14&dq=theronblakeslee&source=bl&ots=YwZolVQpi2&sig=ACfU3U0fNaYTCYHSz9eow-arwdg5crD31w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiK6tio2u_oAhVpl3IEHVUKCVc4ChDoATAGegQIChAt#v=onepage&q=theron blakeslee&f=false.
Trapp, Frank Anderson. “The 1913 Armory Show in Retrospect.” College Art Journal 17, no. 3 (1958): 294-96. Accessed April 22, 2020. doi:10.2307/773997.
Tyre, William. “Hermann Wunderlich – The Story of a House.” Glessner House, August 5, 2019. https://www.glessnerhouse.org/story-of-a-house/tag/Hermann Wunderlich.
“University of Glasgow.” The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler: Search for Exhibitions. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence/exhibit/.
“University of Glasgow.” The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler: The Correspondence. Accessed April 6, 2020. https://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence/biog/display/?bid=Wund_H.