Barry Schwabsky at The Nation:
Was Whistler just as belligerent toward his art as he was with the wider world into which he sent it? You might think so, judging from reports of how he went about making it: “His movements were those of a duellist fencing actively and cautiously with the small sword,” according to one witness. But no, the results show very little evidence of Whistler’s aggressiveness. Henry Adams can’t have been the only observer to have noticed the contrast between Whistler’s “witty, declamatory, extravagant, bitter, amusing, and noisy” public manner and his art of “nuance and tone,” though perhaps he was one of the few to speculate that it showed how the painter might have been “brutalized…by the brutalities of his world.” That might be putting it a bit too strongly, but still, something must account for Whistler’s conviction that “the Master stands in no relation to the moment at which he occurs—a monument of isolation—hinting at sadness—having no part in the progress of his fellow men.” Whatever the cause of this inner core of loneliness and sorrow, none of Whistler’s biographers, including Sutherland, has ever come close to touching on it. Perhaps that’s just as well, because the beauty of the art transcends its motivating ache—by communicating it in a homeopathic dosage.
But there is something that his art is trying badly to assuage. “Great anomalies are never so great at first as after we have reflected upon them,” Henry James wrote in his 1892 story “The Private Life,” and the anomaly of Whistler is one that keeps growing. Imagine if Giorgio Morandi had written the pugnacious manifestos of F.T. Marinetti.