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.

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)

Appel to van Gogh: Contrasts of Light and Dark

Appel_van gogh side by side

(left) Karel Appel, Magnolia of the Night, 1989. Oil on canvas, Private Collection (right) Vincent van Gogh, Almond Blossom, February 1890. Oil on canvas, 73.3 cm x 92.4 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

I am completely taken with our Karel Appel: A Gesture of Color. I am so taken, in fact, that Liam Neeson showed up yesterday to rescue me.

I’m kidding, of course. But I did spend an inordinate amount of time standing in front of one painting in particular—Appel’s 1989 work, Magnolia of the Night. I was so enraptured that I ran to our museum shop to see if they had any prints of it. They did not, and rightfully so. The painting absolutely cannot be reproduced in a way that does justice to the original.

Appel_magnolia close-up

Karel Appel, Magnolia of the Night (detail), 1989

Magnolia of the Night stands in stark contrast to the rest of the exhibition. While most rooms burst with effervescent, distorted color schemes reminiscent of Alice’s Wonderland, the room that contains Magnolia represents Appel’s darker experiments. The painting hosts a black magnolia tree, at once innocent and ominous, visible only by the glint of oil against the black matte canvas. Like a flashlight shone into a fog, the outline of the blossoms shimmers, a veiled suggestion of the life and daylight that the tree would normally represent. While the other works in the exhibition seem to speak—no, yell—as you regard them, this one is stony silent.

It struck me so forcefully, however, for more than just its aesthetic value. It reminded me almost immediately of a painting that hangs in my bedroom at home, Vincent van Gogh’s Almond Blossom. It was given to me by my aunt, rather fittingly, as the work was originally a gift from van Gogh to his brother Theo upon the birth of his nephew. I love it because it is devoid of any nightmarish undertones, so common in much of van Gogh’s work, suggesting some gesture of guardianship and affection. As if van Gogh wanted to shield his nephew from the darkest themes of life, and introduce him instead to the most beautiful ones.

In light of these themes, these two works juxtapose each other wonderfully—so well, in fact, that I wonder if Appel was inspired by Almond Blossoms. Unfortunately, he is not around for us to ask, and he never spoke specifically about Magnolia that I can find. But I think he would appreciate what the inclusion of this piece in our exhibition represents—a greater focus on his affinity for experimentation, whereas some have made the mistake of categorizing his work too quickly. The dark is just as important as the light.

Kelsey Frenkiel, Intern with The University of Maryland Center for Art and Knowledge at The Phillips Collection