The Bluecoat Gallery’s contribution to the Liverpool Biennial is an exhibition about James McNeill Whistler. He’s probably most well known for his painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1,(better known as Whistler’s Mother) and his court action for libel against John Ruskin after the latter criticised his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.
“I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
The exhibition didn’t have many of Whistler’s paintings but there were a large number of prints, a recording of an actor reading Whistler’s “10 O’clock Lecture” and a reconstruction of the Peacock Room he designed for the London house of his patron, Frederick Leyland, a Liverpool shipowner.
“Whistler was in many ways the first contemporary artist,’ says Biennial co-curator, Mai Abu ElDahab. “His work exists on the cusp of what we call today Modern Art. He was a forefather of abstraction, who fought for the position of the artist, developing the idea of the artist as public intellectual. He was the first to display his work in complete environments rather than just as collections of paintings.”
One of the prints was an etching of Speke Hall Leyland,owned by Leyland, which Whistler visited.
Prior to visiting the exhibition I didn’t know much about Whistler other than his dispute with Ruskin and familiarity with his paintings. Unlike Ruskin, I rather like Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, and some of his other paintings. He was somewhat ahead of his time with his Impressionistic style. However I was disappointed with the paintings I saw when I visited the Hunterian Gallery in Glasgow a few years ago, where they have a large collection of his works. His technique meant that his subjects were very indistinct and it was like looking through a thick fog. But the Bluecoat exhibition brought out Whistler’s character. He was vain, conceited, difficult and a real prima donna who didn’t take account of the wishes of the people from who he made his living – his clients. The culmination of the exhibition was the reconstruction of his Peacock Room
Frederick Leyland engaged Whistler to finish off the decoration of a room at his house at 49 Prince’s Gate in Kensington, London. The job had been started by an architect, Thomas Jeckyll whose design included covering the walls with expensive antique Spanish leather. When Jeckyll fell ill Whistler was brought in to finish the job and he went rather wild and well beyond his brief.
Leyland, to put it mildly, was not pleased. He refused to pay Whistler half the agreed fee and also paid in pounds, the currency of “trade”, rather than guineas in which artists and professionals expected payment – a deliberate attempt to insult the artist. As a consequence, Whistler had to file for bankruptcy.
Whistler managed to gain access to the room and painted the two fighting peacocks, the centrepiece of the design, which are meant to represent the artist and his patron and painted over the expensive leather. He also painted a rather unflattering painting of his patron .
There’s more detail about the Peacock Room here.