The Whistler in the Room

William Merritt Chase, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1885. Oil on canvas, 74 1/8 x 36 1/4 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of William H. Walker, 1918

Every time I walk from my desk to the library, I pass through the Phillips’s new exhibition, William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master. I always make a point to stop by one portrait: an 1885 portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, hung beautifully in the high-ceilinged Wurtzel Gallery. It’s a work that stands out for its distinguished sitter and for Chase’s distinguished artistry.

Whistler was also a portraitist of the late 19th century, Chase’s senior by some years. Chase greatly admired him, and sought Whistler out in London early in his career. The two immediately became friends, and Whistler suggested that they paint each other’s portraits. The picture in this exhibition, which Chase described to his wife as promising “to be the best thing”[1] he ever did, is what resulted from Whistler’s urging.

Unfortunately, their friendship was short and ended bitterly. Whistler described the portrait as a “monstrous lampoon,”[2] though his Brown and Gold (Self Portrait) (1895-1900) seems to echo Chase’s earlier image. Both Whistler and Chase are important to The Phillips Collection outside of this 2016 retrospective exhibition. Duncan Phillips acquired Whistler’s Miss Lillian Woakes (1890-91) in 1920 (which is currently on view in another gallery in the museum) and Chase’s Hide and Seek (1888) in 1923.

Whistler’s Miss Lillian Woakes is small, dark, and extraordinarily powerful. Whistler’s first biographer, Joseph Pennell, described it as “one of the most successful—certainly the most beautiful [works] Whistler produced after his marriage.”[3] Included in the Knoedler Galleries group of Whistlers in 1914, a New York Times critic praised it: “Above enchanting draperies rises the head, soundly modelled and rich in humanity.”[4]

Whistler can be a hard artist to classify due to his whimsicality, exploration, and innovation. About 300 of his works can be found across the city at the Freer|Sackler. Its founder, Charles Lang Freer, collected Asian art as well as Whistler and other American artists; Whistler due to his Asian influences—this is particularly evident in Whistler’s Peacock Room. Whistler’s paintings also hang beside Thomas Eakins’s in the American galleries at The National Gallery of Art.

Phillips seems to have seen Whistler as a link to the realism of Gustave Courbet and Edgar Degas, and the naturalism of Diego Velázquez. In the 1930s and 40s, Phillips usually displayed Miss Lillian Woakes next to French masters: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Honoré Daumier, Degas. More recently, the portrait has been hung with American contemporaries: Eakins, George Fuller, Winslow Homer, and George Inness.

whistler_miss lillian woakes

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Miss Lillian Woakes, 1890-01. Oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Phillips was keen to distinguish his Whistler from those held at the Freer. In A Collection in the Making, he catalogued her: “Miss Woakes, however, is not a mere pretext for a color scheme, and not a Japanese conception of the figure as an arabesque, nor a graceful form enveloped in shadowy air. She is a robust blooming English girl in whose vitality and subtle spirit the artist seems to have forgotten himself, striving only for the plastic ‘presence’ and for an expression of the ‘eternal feminine.’”

When you come to visit William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master at the Phillips, ensure you take the time to go downstairs and see the lovely Miss Lillian Woakes as well.

Noah Stevens-Stein, Director’s Office Intern

[1] William Merritt Chase to Alice Gerson, August 8, 1885, reel N69-137, frame 538. Chase Papers.
[2] Smithgall, Elsa, Erica E. Hirshler, Katherine M. Bourguignon, Giovanna Ginex, and John Davis. William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.
[3] Joseph Pennell to Knoedler Gallery, n.d., Knoedler Archives, New York.
[4] W. L. Lampton, “Art Notes,” New York Times, Apr. 5, 1914, sec. 3, p. 14.

Unpacking Double Monuments, Part 2

Installation view_Photo Rhiannon Newman

Installation view of Bettina Pousttchi’s Double Monuments. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

This is a multi-part blog post; Read Part 1 here.

Pousttchi’s Double Monuments at the Phillips soar toward the ceiling as Tatlin’s did, but his model was symbolic of larger things to come. If constructed, his glass and iron sculpture would have been 1,300 feet (about 300 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower). The model was meant to promote “the collective” and (re)establish the visual culture of Russia. Pousttchi’s Double Monuments aren’t necessarily commenting on that idea, but much of their power and meaning is drawn from that history.

Pousttchi uses Dan Flavin’s trademark fluorescent tubes to expand that history. In the 1960s, American artist Dan Flavin utilized neon tubes to explore minimalism and the role of art in the gallery. Interestingly, he created a series responding to Tatlin’s monument. Pousttchi disrupts Dan Flavin’s minimalist language and places fluorescent tubes within bent metal crowd barriers. She simultaneously comments on Flavin’s homage and removes a key element of Flavin’s works; her fluorescent lights are not alone in a gallery space as Flavin’s are, but rather are enveloped by the skeleton of Tatlin’s monument.

Tatlin sought to usher in a new era of Russian visual culture and politics. Flavin was attempting to disrupt the idea of the gallery. Pousttchi comments on history and the work that came before to explore her own ambitions and artistic practice.

Emma Kennedy, Marketing & Communications Intern

Artist as Poet: Forgotten Angels

On July 21, 2016, Deputy Director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs Klaus Ottmann shares an overview of Karel Appel: A Gesture of Color. In anticipation, we’re sharing examples of Appel’s poetry paired with his artwork on the blog. 

Appel_Nude Figure

Karel Appel, Nude Figure, 1989. Oil on canvas, 76 x 95 5/8 in. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris © Karel Appel Foundation, c/o ARS New York, 2016

We feel nothing
only the light growing
we feel that life
has forgotten her wings

The world has gone
from sleepy space
to a technological penitentiary
with the sound-tape of human rights
babbling on through the night

one smile, one angel smile
might burn the shadows on the roof
and let us see the stars
like flowers.

Karel Appel, “The Forgotten Angels”

 

 

 

 

 

Appel_Tree

Karel Appel, Tree, 1949. Gouache on wood, 38 5/8 x 29 1/2 x 24 3/8 in. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris © Karel Appel Foundation, c/o ARS New York, 2016

A tree is poetic
because physicality
is in itself poetic,
because it is a presence,
because it is full of mystery,
because it is full of ambiguity,
because even a tree is a sign
of a chromatic system,
Who speaks by way of the tree?
Reality itself.

Karel Appel (trans. Sam Garrett)