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James Whistler: The Maverick

The name James McNeill Whistler conjures up a confused, contradictory image of an irascible maverick and gregarious dandy - an impression which overshadows his considerable achievement as an artist. Even as late as the 1920's the myth of the capricious gadfly had become almost indelibly stamped on the popular imagination to the detriment of the complete man.

However, much of the blame for this misconception must be accredited to Whistler himself. In his lifetime he contributed greatly to this characture. He had a notoriously short fuse for those who had the audacity to question him or his art and, of course, many did just that. The list of those who could logically be listed as his opponents were some of the most famous and influential names of the nineteenth century. Once he felt that he had been attacked, he never, ever forgave. Perhaps only Whistler could have named his sole literary work The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.

Possessed with an inordinate amount of vanity, he seemed also extremely insecure, and he spent most of his life creating a facade behind which he hid. The insecurity seemed to camouflage itself by a veil of mistrust and it served to deflect any serious inquiry. If one hinted that he might subject himself to biographical inquiry he would always take flight.

In the mid 1890's he actually began an autobiography some portions of which still remain in the Glasgow University Library. In it, the inaccurate statements and fabricated half-truths reveal that he had actually begun to believe "the fiction" of his life. But it is reasonable to assume that he abandoned the work because to sustain such a myth throughout a full biography would have been impossible. The real facts of truth terrified Whistler and he found fiction much easier to cope with.

Without question, Whistler was among the most significant artists of the nineteenth century. He did not, however, as many biographies maintain, live in a void. No artist does. At a very critical moment in European art and society, he, together with his friends, such as Courbet, Manet, Degas, and Monet, were destined to reshape not only the vision of the modern world, but the role of the artist within it.

Whistler was a complicated and multi-faceted man, loved by some and loathed by many. Sometimes he could be warm and friendly, while at other times he was often cantankerous and selfish. Although he was not really promiscuous, it was not often that he was seen without a beautiful woman at hand. Although, while he spent much of his life looking for real love, it was only towards the end that he found it. The breadth of his friendships were truly extraordinary. He was on intimate terms with members of the aristocracy, politicians, and what was known as "new money". Still, one of his most enduring and secretive friendships was with the Irish rebel, John O'leary, a founding father of modern Irish nationalism.

An examination of the life of Whistler is a window through which we can catch a glimpse of one of the most exciting periods of art and social history. There is no way to isolate his personality from his artistic achievements and be true to the truth.

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