Whistler and Sargent - Two Studies in White
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James Abbott McNeill Whistler 
The White Girl (Symphony in White, No. 1) 
1862 
Oil on canvas 
84 1/2 x 42 1/2 in. 
The National Gallery of Art; Harris 
Whittemore Collection 
 
 
John Singer Sargent 
Fumée d'Ambre Gris 
1880  
Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.  
Oil on canvas  
139.1 x 90.8 cm (54 x 26 3/4 in.) 
 
Two Studies in White

Once you look closer, the similarities between the two paintings are striking. Both are a studies of white on white and in some ways Sargent surpases Whistler in his handeling of showdows and the play of light accents. 

Linda Ayrers, with her essay in Patricia Hills' book, documents similarities between Whistlerís and Sargentís Venetian work. Both painted dark interiors in Venice. Whistler had been in Venice an extended period of time before Sargentís arrival in 1880, though there isnít any direct evidence that they met that year (I do think itís highly possible). Richard Ormond, and Elaine Kilmurray in their book discuss the similarities between  Falling Rocket and Spanish Dance (two studies in Black) but they seem to think it's more coincidence since they can't document Sargent knowing Whistler at that time. 

I believe I am the first person to attribute Sargentís Fumée d'Ambre Gris with Whistlerís White Girl (which I find rather exiting). Even if Sargent didnít personally know Whistler in Ď79 and Ď80, the latter was older and vastly more popular than Sargent, and it's my contention that it is not necessary that the two personally knew each other for Sargent to be influenced by the elder, but just that Sargent had a knowledge of Whistlers work Ė which I think is very likely.  

Whistler was an expatriate American -- as was Sargent. Whistler was very popular with the French -- as was Sargent, though much more at a beginning level. Even if Sargent didnít outwardly speak of it, he must have admired Whistler from afar, and I donít think itís necessary that Sargent knew him personally to study Whistlerís work or to follow it in the press. 

The blow up between James Whistler and John Ruskin in 1878 gives even more credibility to John bing influenced by Whistler (1). Any artist of the time would have known the very striking differences between the two styles of painting in France (which had embarked on Impressionism),  and the British (which were headed with the Pre-Raphael Brotherhood). The fact that John declares to a friend that the most important thing about Fumée d'Ambre Gris was the color, and it coming on the heels of Spanish Dance is just too much of a coincidence. To my mind, there is no doubt of the influence of Whistler's work on Sargent. 

Notes 


(1) 
The case between John Ruskin and Whistler had gone to court November of 1878 (Charteris, P.86). There was ample time for John to have heard of the uproar.  
 

Forum 

Subject:  Whistler & Sargent  
From:  Kathie Roskomkjrgen@hotmail.com 
Date:  Mon, 23 Oct 2000  

Natasha, 

I do agree that obviously Sargent didn't need to personally know Whistler in order to be influenced by him.  

I looked through my resources, and although no one records a precise meeting time there seem's to be no question they knew each other by 1879-1880.  

Charteris says they met in 1874, except he also says it was in Venice.  

(Everyone else seems to agree the Sargents did not go to Venice that year.)  

John Sargent" by Hon. Evan Charteris, K.C., Charles Scribner's Sons, 1927,p.20-21:  
 

In spite of cholera scares Venice was their (Sargent family) first objective.  Here they Met Whistler, who, born in 1834, was now in his fortieth year. 
Whistler was enthusiastic over his young compatriot's watercolours and drawings.  Thus began distinctly friendly relations between them which lasted till the elder artist's death in 1903.  Later, when Sargent was as yet little heard of in England, Whistler was one of the earliest to direct attention to his work.  In 1894 Sargent, a consistent admirer of Whistler's painting, together with St. Gaudens, tried to get him to decorate one of the large panels on the stairs of the Boston Library.  Whistler described this as an act of 'rare and noble camaraderie.' (E.R. and J. Pennell "The Whistler Journal" p.34)  The project hung fire.  He got as far as making notes for the design, which he told Mr. Pennell was to be a peacock ten feet high; but the scheme never matured.  Sargent used to say that Whistler's use of paint was so exquisite that if a piece of canvas were cut out of one of his pictures one would find that it was in itself a thing of beauty by the very texture and substance into which it had been transformed by his brush.  It has more than once been said that the two painters were far from friendly to one another.  This is contrary to the fact.  Temperamentally it is true, they differed profoundly.  There was in Whistler an overt antagonism to opinions and accomplishments with which he was not in sympathy that to Sargent was incomprehensible.  Nor was his appreciation of Sargent's maturer work by any means enthusiastic.  Yet, unlike as the two men were in most respects, their relations were uniformly friendly, and no one enjoyed Whistler's devastating wit more than Sargent.
From "The World of Whistler" by Tom Prideaux, Time-Life Books, 1970, p.144:  
Like all sojourners in Venice, Whistler spent part of his days sitting at the little tables outside the Cafe Florian or the Quadri in the Piazza di San Marco; he listened to the band playing in the square and lifted his monocle to stare or nod at such visitors as Franz Liszt, George Eliot, Richard Wagner, or his fellow American and incipient rival, the young painter John Singer Sargent. 

[Editor's note -- See the Caffès of the Piazza]

From "John Singer Sargent" by Patricia Hills, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1986, p.54:  
 
It is unclear when Sargent first met the famous Whistler, though the two seem likely to have met during Sargent's 1880 Venetian visit, if not before.  By the time Sargent reached the city in September 1880, Whistler had been there a year and had taken a room at the Casa Jankowitz, attracting a group of other Americans, including a young etcher named Otto Bacher who, like Sargent, had been a pupil of Carolus-Duran in Paris... 
Whistler's effect on Sargent can be seen in subtle ways.  Sargent's delicate panoramic view of c.1882, "Venice par Temps Gris" calls to mind Whistler's "The Lagoon, Venice: Nocturne in Blue and Silver."  At the same time, Whistler's small-scale etchings and pastels of obscure Venetian alleys and his monochromatic vignettes of contemporary Venetian domestic life influenced Sargent's figure paintings.  Whistler's interest in working-class subjects, the sense of alienation and detachment in his Venetian work, and his prevalent use of apertures all have parallels in Sargent's Venetian paintings. 
"However, many of the characteristics that attracted Sargent to Whistler's work, can be found, too, in the work of Velazquez, an artist profoundly admired not only by Sargent and Whistler but also by Sargent's teacher, Carolus-Duran, and many other late nineteenth-century French artists.  Sargent traveled to Madrid in 1879 specifically to study the Spanish master." 
 

By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2002 all rights reversed
Created 5/20/2000
updated 2/15/2002