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.

Perhaps We All Come From Pissarro

Pissarro_Quarry

Camille Pissarro, Quarry, Pontoise, c. 1874. Oil on canvas, 22 7/8 x 28 1/2 in. The Rudolf Staechelin Collection © Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler

On view in Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from SwitzerlandCamille Pissarro‘s Quarry, Pontoise is a lush, peaceful scene. After the Franco-Prussian War, the artist moved from Louveciennes to Pontoise in the rural Oise Valley, where he lived from 1872–82. He chose the hamlet of l’Hermitage for almost his entire stay, inspired by its streets, fields, and countryside. Here, Pissarro shows a woman with a basket walking past a quarry on the arcing path of the rue de l’Hermitage, which leads to the Saint-Antoine ravine. In this area 25 miles northwest of Paris, Pissarro painted side-by-side with Paul Cézanne from 1872 to 1874. Both artists greatly admired and influenced each other. Cézanne claimed to be a pupil of Pissarro and stated: “Perhaps we all come from Pissarro.”

Frankenthaler and Motherwell: A Painterly Marriage

Motherwell in white and yellow ochre_Frankenthaler runningscape

(left) Robert Motherwell, In White and Yellow Ochre, 1961. Oil, charcoal, ink, tempera and paper collage on paper, 40 7/8 x 27 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, acquired 1965. Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY (right) Helen Frankenthaler, Runningscape, 1962. Oil on canvas, 32 in x 52 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Gifford and Joann Phillips, 2009; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Two of the Phillips’s most cherished Abstract Expressionist artists, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, shared more than a style of painting: they were also married from 1958 to 1971. Currently, a group of the couple’s works from the museum’s permanent collection are on display in neighboring galleries. Four of my favorites are Canyon and Runningscape, both by Frankenthaler, and In White and Yellow Ochre and Chi Ama, Crede by Motherwell.

Studying these works in a group, I began to think of the differences in the two artists’ styles, despite the fact that all four of the works were created in the early 1960s. I compared the soft applications of oil and acrylic in both of Frankenthaler’s works to the more aggressive elements in Motherwell’s. Utilizing varied textures, Motherwell’s In White and Yellow Ochre combines mediums with collaged materials, resulting in a harsher design and abstracted contours. In contrast, Frankenthaler uses oil paint like watercolor in Runningscape, thinning it into washes that bleed into each other to create a fluid design. Each of the artists’ larger pieces—Frankenthaler’s Canyon and Motherwell’s Chi Ama, Crede—also contain these distinctions, Canyon being composed of expansive fields of saturated color and Chi Ama, Crede of jagged applications in dull maroons and browns.

Frankenthaler canyon_Motherwell chi ama crede

(left) Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 46 1/8 in x 52 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions and funds given by Gifford Phillips, 2001; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (right) Robert Motherwell, Chi Ama, Crede, 1962. Oil on canvas, 82 x 141 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Whitehead Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Marc E. Leland, and the Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown and Donald A. Brown, 1998; Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

What is interesting is that both artists were influenced by the same group of contemporaries: Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. They also created these works in the early years of their marriage, when they were likely collaborating and comparing painting techniques. Their differences are thus results of their own personal styles retained throughout their independent careers. Frankenthaler’s paintings are distinctly feminine, whereas Motherwell’s works have a more aggressive appearance of masculinity. This pair of artists serve as a unique look at the female and male perspectives on a specific movement of art.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern