I just finished the 2014 biography of James Abbott McNeil Whistler “A Life for Art’s Sake” by Daniel E. Sutherland and it was terrific! More than anyone else, Whistler freed art from moralizing, story-telling, narrative and historical subject matter and coined the term “Art for art’s sake” with the artist focused instead on creating works of beauty through arrangements of forms and color harmonies. His lack of interest in subjects as a literal representation informed his naming practices, borrowing from music for painting titles that used words like “Nocturne”, Symphony” and “Arrangement”. So, in a sense he was one of the first to think abstractly about the making of art. He was born an American but spent his adult life in England and France. And he knew everyone in the art worlds of both countries. The book reads like a who’s who of the time, from the 1870s to the beginning of the 20th century (he died in 1903). Five stars and a big thumb’s up! The book is available new or used from Amazon.
Comments About Art And Artists From William Robinson Leigh
Although his name is not familiar to most people anymore,in his day Leigh was ranked with Remington and Russell for his depictions of the American West, mostly southwestern Native Americans.
He grew up in a southern family that struggled to maintain an acceptable level of gentility without much money. Through the kindness of family members and friends, Leigh studied art at the Munich Academy for 12 years, even though he’d really wanted to go to Paris (too expensive).
He ended up traveling to the West and found his subject matter among the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni people, gaining the fame and fortune he had always sought late in his career.
I recently read Leigh’s biography by D. Duane Cummins, having gotten interested in the artist after stumbling across four of his original pen and ink drawings for his book “Frontiers of Enchantment” at an art gallery in New York, which unfortunately were way beyond my price range. The book is about his adventures in Africa with Carl Akeley.
He was apparently quite an unpleasant person to be around and didn’t marry until late adulthood.
The book quotes from Leigh’s writings and he seems to have had plenty to say both about the creation of art and the art scene of his time, of which he was not, shall we say, a fan.
Here are a few of my favorites:
From a letter from Leigh to his mother, who wanted him to “skip ahead” from drawing to painting at the Munich Academy so he would be done sooner with his stay in Europe, money to pay for it being difficult to come by:
“You ask if I do not think that it would be my better plan to go into the painting school. Well I will tell you just how it is. You probably think that after having studied drawing for the length of time which I have studied it, (three winters in Baltimore, and two winters here, five in all) that I ought to be a pretty good draftsman by this time, at least good enough to go into the painting school. And it is very natural of you to think so; having not a minute knowledge of what an artist has to know. but you only have to reflect what an enormous undertaking it is to become an artist. When a person begins to paint, think what he has to struggle with. The bare outline of the head, the modeling of each individual part, the color, and the manipulation of the paint. When one begins to paint before he can draw well, he finds the difficulties so increased that he is crushed and is at a loss to know how to advance. The only thing is to go back to the drawing school and draw, until drawing becomes easy to him so that when he begins to paint the color and handling of the paint are the only things he has trouble with…Art is not a thing that can be understood at a glance, or studied out by rule like long division sums, nor can it be pushed along by force or learned within a measured space of time. It is not simply the skill of long practice, it is mental creative process.”
And, one week later:
“Do not think that all I have to do is to go into the Antique for one year, Nature one year, Paint one year, and Composition school one year, and then come home an artist. I might as well, tell you now, that it will take much, much longer than you think….I have begun the study of art now and there is no turning back.
On Post-Impressionism (this from someone who had wanted very badly to study art in Paris):
“A whole generation is being mentally indoctrinated with sophistical garbage and the philosophy of Paris sewer-psychology.” He also referred to French paintings as barbaric, vulgar imbecilities, brazen effronteries, hideous travesties, sadistic, psychological bamboozle, technical flub dub, and insults to the common intelligence.”
“Sodom and Gomorrah would have been contaminated by them.”
After viewing the Armory Show in 1913:
“When our country was first invaded by the excretions of the French absinth fiends & and soul-debased moral prostitutes at the armoury exhibition in 1913, few including myself, could have been brought to believe possible, the aberrations of which our land is capable.”, also referring to it as an “intellectual pigsty” and “a lunatic’s hangout”.
At that point in time art like that in the show was outselling the style of art he was doing, both in price and quantity.
A finally, quite a takedown of Whistler:
“Whistler never understood that the human message in a picture was weightier than his tonal effects. He was devoid of story telling qualities: human joys and sorrows, the tragedies and poetries of life, the problems of the world, the sublimity of the ocean, the clouds, the stars did not stur his imagination. Cold and cynical, he took no interest in anything outside himself and the technical; the milk of human kindness, if he had any of it, was in the form of a lump of ice. Never before had the mediocre and the ignorant such a champion.”
I know, William, but what do you really think?