James McNeill Whistler, 1885, Photogravure attributed to Mortimer Menpes (1859-1938). Signed with the butterfly and inscribed by Whistler, probably in 1899, “To Charles L. Freer—à un de ces jours!” Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer|Sackler Archives
I can only imagine the sparks that flew when artist James McNeill Whistler met writer Oscar Wilde, a meeting of great minds and superb wits. Both were associated with the Aesthetic movement that blossomed in England in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Wilde, who was twenty years younger than Whistler, fashioned himself as the artist’s disciple. They traveled in the same artistic circles in London, and both had a way with words. In fact, when Whistler delivered a particularly delicious bon mot, Wilde remarked, “I wish I had said that.” “You will, Oscar; you will,” was Whistler’s enviable reply.
Oscar Wilde, 1882, Sarony (from John Cooper’s “Oscar Wilde in America”)
Renowned for his works of art, whose decorative, nearly abstract qualities puzzled Victorian viewers accustomed to moralizing narrative, Whistler was a self-proclaimed elitist in spite of his penchant for self-promotion. Wilde, on the other hand, was a popularizer, happily lecturing audiences from London to San Francisco on the quintessentially Aesthetic topic “the House Beautiful.” Whistler ultimately tired of Wilde, who he felt was encroaching on his turf. He publicly detached himself from the writer on the evening of February 20, 1885, at Prince’s Hall, London, when Whistler delivered his Ten O’Clock Lecture. Appearing in full evening dress, Whistler intended the event as a public manifesto, in which he challenged the conventional aesthetics of the day. Breaking with the long tradition of artists creating realist works that imitated nature, Whistler argued that nature could use a little help from the artist:
“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful as the musician gathers his notes. And forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.”
While presenting himself as a rare genius, Whistler cast Wilde as an “amateur” and a stalking “Dilettante.” Though Whistler did not use Wilde’s name in his speech, his description of the author was clearly recognizable to the audience.
In his review of the event, Wilde responded with this playful praise for the Ten O’Clock:
“Not merely for its clever nature and amusing jests … but for the pure and perfect beauty of many of its passages … for that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler entirely concurs.”
More verbal sparring ensued (a kind of war between the aesthetes), and the Whistler-Wilde friendship dissolved entirely. Always one to get the last word, Wilde would later base the murdered artist in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray after Whistler.
With Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest on stage at the nearby Shakespeare Theatre, Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at the Freer|Sackler, will speak about the complicated relationship between Whistler and Wilde at Harman Hall on Saturday, March 1, at 5:30 pm (rescheduled due to weather). Tickets are free, but reservations are required. More information is available at shakespearetheatre.org.