- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 27, 2002

Art lovers often overlook James Abbott McNeill Whistler's revolutionary genius because of his flamboyance. Fortunately, the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art concentrates on Whistler the artist rather than Whistler the luminary in its new show, "Whistler's Nudes."

Whistler lived from 1834 to 1903. Although he, and later the impressionists, broke through the academic styles of the late 19th century, he's also remembered for his well-publicized battles with critics and patrons.

Whistler was raised partly in Russia, where his father, a railway engineer, was designing the St. Petersburg-Moscow railway for Czar Nicholas I. Whistler flunked out of the military academy at West Point in 1854. Critics speculate that his obsession with status came from these experiences because when he arrived in Paris at age 21, he pretended he was an American Southern gentleman and cavalryman.

Whistler was an immediate success in Paris, as he also was when he settled in London in 1858. The 1860s and early 1870s in London saw major works such as "Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (The Artist's Mother)" and "The White Girl (Symphony in White, No. 1)."

He did most of the female figures in the Freer show in the 1880s, when he already had made a name for his radical use of Japanese perspectives and empty spaces and English atmospheric effects. The spareness and evanescence of his almost abstract Thames River "nocturnes" of the 1870s carry over to the exhibit's luminous nudes, such as "Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl," "Note in Violet and Green (The Purple Cap)" and "La Danseuse: A Study of the Nude."

Kenneth Myers, Freer Gallery's associate curator of American art, shows visitors the beauty and seriousness of Whistler's art by concentrating on what really is the coda of the artist's career. It is the sixth in a series of exhibitions devoted to Whistler. The artist already had experienced the highs and lows of his work when he turned to rendering the female form. He also lost his beloved wife, Beatrix, in 1896 after eight years of marriage.

Whistler won his famous libel suit against the powerful art critic John Ruskin in 1879, but the costs of the trial bankrupted him. To recoup, he spent more than a year in Venice, Italy, creating a superb set of etchings that the Freer showed last year.

Fellow Americans such as Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery, competed to buy his art. They appreciated the radical qualities of Whistler's work, while Ruskin was still caught up in Victorian fussiness. Freer had met Whistler in London in 1890. They liked each other, and Freer began buying Whistler drawings and oils, many of them female nudes.

In 1894, Freer commissioned the painting that is the exhibit's high point, "Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl." He asked Whistler for a figure painting "to, in a way, hint at spring," as the exhibit label tells the viewer. The artist was heartbroken by his wife's death two years later and kept the painting until his own death.

Visitors will notice the thick, cracked paint of the figure's face, which renders the visage indistinguishable to a viewer. The impasto destroys the harmony of the painting but expresses the depth of Whistler's sadness. It also sums up the innovations of his earlier female figure studies as seen in the exhibition.

The artist made his first nudes in the early 1870s as preparatory studies for paintings. He revolutionized the then-popular custom of evoking Greek goddesses or placing women in harems by situating his women in undefined spaces or in his studio. Like other artists of his time, however, he lightly draped them in diaphanous cloth, as the Greeks had done.

Whistler returned to delineating the nude female form in 1884 and made the nudes as finished works of art. He exhibited and sold many until his death. He continued to push the abstract and sketchy qualities of the earlier nudes in the watercolors, pastels and lithographs in the show.

The artist began to experiment with the more fluid print medium of lithography and used it for showing women at rest in his studio. He also used lithography for a series of ethereal dancers. Whistler hoped to achieve the subtlety and textures of his pastels that, fortunately, Mr. Myers also displays.

The curator has taken a little-studied area of Whistler's work that poses several questions: Did the artist suddenly turn to female nudes in the mid-1880s because of his marriage to Beatrix Godwin? These late nudes are highly asexual. What were Whistler's motives for making them?

Mr. Myers believes the nudes could represent the artist's notions of beauty. The curator points out that, as Whistler said in his 1885 "Ten O'Clock Lecture," "Art is a goddess of dainty thought reticent of habit abjuring all obtrusiveness proposing in no way to better others. She is withal selfishly occupied with her own perfection only."

In Whistler's time, "art" usually was personified by a woman, so visitors will have to formulate their own answers to the questions. Whistler always invented himself, and this is, partly, what makes him such a challenging, interesting artist. Mr. Myers will further explore the conundrums and beauty of Whistler's art in three shows planned next year for the centenary of the artist's death.


WHAT: "Whistler's Nudes"

WHERE: Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive at 12th Street SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Jan. 5, 2003

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/357-2700

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