While he might be best known for a painting of his mother, James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an accomplished printmaker and even more accomplished at managing his public persona. The Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) opens an exhibition Saturday titled Whistler and Rebellion in the Art World that delves into the places where Whistler's art and his personality cross.
"He was always in the midst of some type of controversy or scandal or uproar one way or the other with critics or with patrons," said CMOA Curator of Fine Art Amanda Zehnder.
Perhaps the most famous incident of Whistler making a big public splash to help manage his public persona was the libel suit he filed against artist, professor and critic John Ruskin. In 1878 Whistler took exception to Ruskin's critique of his painting of fireworks titled Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, where Ruskin said Whistler "had thrown a paint pot in the face of the public," and that it was not worth the money he was asking for the work.
"It turned into this almost like theater where Whistler, when he was on the witness stand, kind of took it as an opportunity to espouse his philosophies on art," said Zehnder. Whistler won the case, but nearly went bankrupt doing it.
After the trial Whistler slipped away to Venice, where he dug into his printmaking and produced some of his most revered works. The Carnegie Museum owns several of those works and in total more than one hundred prints created by Whistler.
The exhibition digs deep into the collection and mixes it with quotes from and about the artist, to show the rebellious aspects of his life. Also on display will be a first edition of a self-promotional book written by Whistler, titled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Copies of the book will be scattered about the gallery for visitors to peruse.
"In terms of an artist grooming himself and knowing that he was the way he presented himself in the public was very important to generating interest about his art at some level," said Zehnder. She thinks Whistler served as a role model for other artists looking to groom their public image.
Visitors might be surprised to find that an artist that produced such delicate prints had a personality that was at times abrasive and nearly always controversial. "It's a very interesting dual nature to his presence in the art world," said Zehnder.
The exhibition will also include one of Whistler's paintings that is usually on display elsewhere in the museum. The work "Arraignment in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate" features a violin player dressed in black on a dark background. It was the second painting purchased by Andrew Carnegie's buyers in 1896 when they were putting together the first Carnegie International.
The exhibition opens Saturday and runs through early December.