Studio: international art — 34.1905

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Reminiscences of the JVhistler A cademy


To come face to face with a unique personality
was the experience of some forty pupils of the
short-lived Academie-Whistler in Passage Stanislas,
Rue Notre Dame des Champs, Paris. What we,
his pupils, saw of him was scarcely self-revelatory,
yet it sufficed to make him an immortal entity to
us. What I learned from him then has made his
own work abundantly more comprehensible to me.

It was the first of the season, and he had
exasperatingly disappointed us by non-appearance
for several successive weeks. To be sure, by way
of compensation, he had written us a letter in
which he had addressed us as " the distinguished
pupils whom it is my pleasure to meet." Then a
day was set, positively, for his first appearance.

It was a dramatic moment when the hush of
work was broken by an exclamation from the
massiere of the class. "I hear wheels." The
wheels of " M. Weeslaire" could not possibly be
mistaken for the wheels of any ordinary mortal.
Hastening off her paint-apron and stowing it in
a dark comer, she flew out to meet him. Presently
the door opened and she swept aside the curtain,
announcing, "Mr. Whistler." And there he was,
but much less extraordinary in appearance than
our expectations had pictured him. He even
looked healthy and acted like a human being.

In spite of carefully calculated clothing, he was
evidently so small and so slight as to be really tiny.
He wore his monocle, kept on one of his black kid
gloves, and carried his high hat while he criticised.
Nothing could be funnier than to see the little man
picking his way around among the easels, the
massiere with an immaculate "paint-rag" in readi-
ness, and the rest of us swinging after, like the tail
of a comet. Awe and admiration were visible to
the naked eye at such times.

Much of his talk was in broken, rather hazy,
sentences, but whether complimentary or sarcastic
was sometimes a matter for grave discussion
afterwards. As, for instance, after asking a former
pupil of the Cincinnati Academy where she had
studied, he languidly remarked, " And did all this
come from Cincinnati ?" Some days he would
look at us with a sort of laughing kindliness, as
though we were very babes in the woods to him.
Manner was more than words with him. By way
of suggesting some need of improvement he
exclaimed, merely, to one pupil, "Now Miss P.!"
but shook his fist in her face as he said it. It was

a good-natured but impressive expostulation. " I
painted it in only two hours," apologised one pupil
as he approached her easel. " But you had no
business to paint it in only two hours." " I
intended to work longer," she began. " Intentions
are never a virtue," he concluded.

Whistler remarked once that what he taught us
was "neither a method, a trick, a system, nor a
dodge." After that, I shall not be so rash as to
name it. Yet however indefinite in words his
teaching might be, it was securely tethered to
reality on the palette.

It was a proud moment for me when, at the
first of the year, he chose my palette on which to
explain his practice of colour arrangement. On
the outer rim of the palette the chosen colours were
ranged in invariable order : white in the centre;
to the right, vermilion, Venetian red, Indian red,
and ivory black; to the left, yellow ochre, raw
siena, raw umber, cobalt, and mineral blue. Then
on the lower part of the palette these colours were
mixed with the palette-knife, so as to form in
flesh tones a systematic transition from light to
dark: quite as definite a sequence as an octave
on the piano, and in his hands capable of every
possible variation. The brushes—the flexible,
round-end Whistler brushes—the manner of whose
track through the wet paint I recognise with so
much pleasure in his work, were carefully devoted
each to its particular tone in the scale of colour.
He laughingly suggested that the brushes should
be named "Susan," "Maria," and so forth; and
that we should be careful not to confuse their

" You must see your picture on the palette," he
used to say : meaning that on the palette we must
find and test and be sure of exactly the tone that
we needed for each individual brush-stroke through-
out the picture. " Here, not on your canvas, is
your field of experiment, the place where you
make your choices."

We learn how it was with Whistler's own
painting, from the Count de Montesquieu, who tells
of the "sixteen agonizing sittings" — standings
really—that were necessary to the making of his
portrait. '' By some fifty strokes a sitting the
portrait advanced. The finished work consisted
of some hundred accents, of which none was
corrected or painted out."

On that day when Whistler set my palette he
returned it to me with the words : " I put in your
hands a text-book with no thought of convincing
you of its merits. The professor of mathematics
does not think of justifying Euclid if his pupils

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