Feature

Exhibition of the week: Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly

The exhibit at the Clark Art Institute brings together 41 paintings by James McNeill Whistler along with the works of 14 fellow artists, among them George Inness, John Twachtman, and William Merritt Chase.

Exhibition of the week
Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly
Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.
Through Oct. 19

James McNeill Whistler originally tried to paint in the thickly layered style of Gustave Courbet, “with whom he also shared a mistress,” said Christopher Benfey in Slate.com. Soon, for reasons personal and aesthetic, he “overhauled his style completely” and headed for the opposite extreme, seeking to eliminate any evidence of his brush strokes. Paint delicately applied to a canvas, he said, “should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass.” Between 1867 and 1872, he debuted his new style with several celebrated portraits and a series of moonlit landscapes he called Nocturnes. In paintings such as Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate (1884), the black shadows and white highlights “seem to have condensed on the surface or seeped through from the back of the canvas.”

Whistler’s elegant, dark manner quickly provoked admiration and imitation, said Ken Johnson in The New York Times. “Whistler was the most radical and the most influential painter” of his day who wasn’t an impressionist, and his style appealed to fellow American painters who weren’t part of that French movement. A new exhibition at the Clark Art Institute brings together 41 paintings by Whistler and 14 contemporaries. John Twachtman’s green-and-gray Arques-la-Baille (1885) shows “deftly painted reeds standing out against smooth, receding planes of pond water.” George Inness’ bucolic, dream-like scenes of Montclair, N.J., “seem illuminated from within.” William Merritt Chase’s gorgeous, all-red rendition of a young woman in an armchair is “a hedonistic response to his friend Whistler’s famous portrait of his formidably upright mother.”

Like Breath on Glass is an undoubtedly lovely exhibition, said Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe. But “something is missing: a healthy dose, I would suggest, of skepticism.” Seen side by side, these gauzy scenes can seem boring, “blurred, and hazy.” The exhibition also fails to point out that Whistler’s painstaking effects were hardly the result of a light touch. Constantly struggling for a casual look, the painter “repeatedly scraped the paint back and applied it afresh.” He employed chalk, glue, and heavy doses of varnish. No wonder later artists—not realizing how much work “painting softly” might require—had difficulty following
in his footsteps. Even Whistler never again quite matched the magic of
his Nocturnes.

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