A review of Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake by Daniel E. Sutherland

The first biography in more than twenty years of James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) is also the first to make extensive use of the artist’s private correspondence to tell the story of his life and work. This engaging personal history dispels the popular notion of Whistler as merely a combative, eccentric, and unrelenting publicity seeker, a man as renowned for his public feuds with Oscar Wilde and John Ruskin as for the iconic portrait of his mother. The Whistler revealed in these pages is an intense, introspective, and complex man, plagued by self-doubt and haunted by an endless pursuit of perfection in his painting and drawing.

In his beautifully illustrated and deeply human portrayal of the artist, Daniel E. Sutherland shows why Whistler was perhaps the most influential artist of his generation, and certainly a pivotal figure in the cultural history of the nineteenth century. Whistler comes alive through his own magnificent work and words, including the provocative manifestos that explained his bold artistic vision, sparked controversy in his own time, and resonate to this day. 

Hardcover, 440 pages
Published March 4th 2014 by Yale University Press

A copy of Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake by Daniel E. Sutherland was provided to me in exchange for a fair and honest review.

This is a proper 'cradle to grave' biography covering the entire life span of American painter, James McNeill Whistler. The author, Daniel E. Sutherland makes a point to mention that he uses Whistler's private correspondence excerpted throughout this biography. Well, he did quote a sentence or two throughout chapters related to events and people in Whistler's life pertaining to his art career and friendships; however, I was so disappointed in this aspect of the novel. The quoted letters sentences used did not provide a thorough or concrete glimpse into Whistler's life. They were merely used as teasing glimpses. Nowhere, throughout this biography were entire paragraphs of Whistler's letters used nor were there any images of his correspondence included in a total of 107 illustrations! Daniel Sutherland included over one hundred of Whistler's drawings, sketches, paintings, portraits, and photographs including himself, his well-known artist friends; even his female mistresses, girlfriends, muses, etc. are there to satisfy the readers curiosity. So, why only use a sentence or two in a page sporadically dispersed throughout various chapters? You have done your research and gained access to his correspondence and those of his friends and family members, so why not quote more of the letters and provide copies in the book as well? I believe strongly having had more excerpts of James Whistler's own words, it would have brought the man to life; up through his canvas instead of remaining flat and dull. I say this having done research myself on nineteenth-century poets. Correspondence is key to gaining a vivid understanding of the complete person!

I have some idea of the type of human being James Whistler was but not enough of a true life portrait here for my liking. Daniel Sutherland relies heavily upon explanation of geographical areas Whistler lived, so much so I sometimes felt as if I was on a road trip! Sometimes it was a good and interesting ride and sometimes I felt sick in the back seat and needed to be let out of the car for some fresh air! I suppose I expected and hoped for more descriptive concentration on Whistler the man and the painter; his inspirations for his art beyond the women in his life. This is not a romantic biography by any means; there is no painter and muse fantasy going on here, so drop those expectations immediately! I was hoping for more of an understanding of who Whistler was as a painter through his friendships with the more 'Impressionist' painters to put a label on it. For instance, Degas, Monet, Tissot, Courbet, etc. They were here but mostly in story form or humorous tales over dinner and drinks with the lads! However, if you are a fan of Pre-Raphaelite Art or the Brotherhood, look no further you have found your artistic biography! The gangs all here as it were! Whistler's close friendships with Swinburne and the Rossetti brothers; Whistler's understandable adoration of John Everett Millais, some mentions of Watts, Burne-Jones, even Julia Margaret Cameron, and The Prinseps but as usual not enough of the Freshwater set for me which is fine. I just grew tired of Dante Gabriel Rossetti dominating his friendship with Whistler; it became so tired and overdone!

All the famous Whistler paintings are mentioned and described chronologically as it pertains to events going on in Whistler's life but not enough depth really. If Whistler's correspondence mentions any rich details about his thoughts and musings over certain paintings, I missed reading about it here! When it comes to The Whistler Family, James sometimes called 'Jamie' or 'Jemie' is explained in the usual general manner in this biography. However, I noticed again when it came to illustrations or photos of family members, a lithograph of his parents are included and only one photograph of his brother 'Willie' William McNeill Whistler as a grown man. There are no lithographs or photographs at all of his sister Deborah nicknamed 'Debo' and they had a very close sibling relationship throughout their lives. Only one painting shows her likeness, 'At the Piano' with their niece Annie. It was Whistler's first painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860 where J.E. Millais said, "finest piece of colour."

 At the Piano by James McNeill Whistler, 1860. Included in the biography.
When discussing the illustrations Daniel E. Sutherland includes the many women in Whistler's life that he dated, courted, and lived with so I found it very odd to discover that one woman was missing from the illustrations completely! She was Whistler's first fiance and the one that got away. A very important young woman named Elizabeth ‘Lizzy’ ‘Baby’ Dawson. Elizabeth's eldest sister, Frances Dawson met and married Frederick Leyland, Whistler's lifelong friend and mentor. Whistler painted her portrait painting, ‘Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Frances Leyland’, 1871–1874. This painting is included in the illustration section but none whatsoever of Elizabeth Dawson. I did a little search of my own and found two of Whistler's pastel drawings of Elizabeth Dawson at the University of Glasgow's Hunterian Museum website. I'm sure there is a very good reason why they were not included in Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake. Even though, I find this a very frustrating aspect of reading a chronological biography; especially, when its "the first biography in more than twenty years!" As a reader, I should not have to do my own research to find images of subjects in a biography. I did it out of frustration instead of a positive curiosity gained after reading about a person and wanting to learn more. To me this is an on-going problem I experienced as a reader. 

‘Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Frances Leyland’, 1871–1874 by James McNeill Whistler

If you are looking for a fun and lighthearted biography of the artist James McNeill Whistler than this could be for you. There are wonderful artist stories told about him and his famous friends and the research is here for the reader. In my case, I was just expecting a much different type of artist biography!

For further information about this biography, Yale University Press


Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberley,

What beautiful paintings and so photographic.
Whistler is one of America's greatest artists.

Thank you for sharing.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Kevin,

Yes, I agree! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.