(from left to right): Cover: Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake; "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1," commonly known as "Whistler’s Mother" by James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(from left to right):
Cover: Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake; "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1," commonly known as "Whistler’s Mother" by James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Self-confidence vs. Self-doubt Give Balance to Art, Life

Daniel Sutherland

Daniel Sutherland

by Chris Branam

Early on in the recent PBS documentary, James McNeill Whistler and the Case for Beauty, an actor portraying the famous artist struts along a riverbank, wearing all black and smiling slyly as he pokes his bamboo cane into the dirt on every stride.

A voice is heard as the viewer watches the scene.

“He alternates between this enormous self-confidence and enormous self-doubt and I think that’s what makes him so intriguing,” says Whistler biographer Daniel E. Sutherland, one of nine authorities on Whistler’s life who lent their expertise in the making of the film. “His public image is someone who never doubted himself. He purposefully creates this ‘other Whistler.’ He talks about the other Whistler as apart from himself.”

Sutherland, a Distinguished Professor of history in Fulbright College, described the “two Whistlers” in his well-received biography, Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake, released in March 2014 by Yale University Press. It was the first published biography of the artist in more than two decades. There have been nearly 20 biographies of Whistler since he died in 1903, but Sutherland’s is the first to make extensive use of his private correspondence. 

In 1871 Whistler painted the famous Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, known colloquially as Whistler’s Mother. The iconic painting became one of the most recognizable portraits in the Western world. Whistler has been remembered in previous histories as a carefree, unrelenting publicity seeker. In his biography, Sutherland presents a Whistler that was intense, introspective, complex and driven to perfection.

Karen Thomas, the documentary’s award-winning producer, approached Sutherland in 2005 to act as a historical consultant on the film. As the project progressed, Thomas asked Sutherland to help shape the script — although Thomas did all the writing — and to appear on screen as someone with a comprehensive knowledge of Whistler.

Sutherland also accompanied Thomas and her film crew when they were shooting scenes for the film in England.

 “It was fascinating to see how a filmmaker went about telling Whistler’s story, where the emphasis is on images, rather than on text,” Sutherland said. “It was also a daunting task — and at times tremendously frustrating — to cram Whistler’s life and work into 50 minutes.”

The documentary aired nationally on Sept. 12. On Sept. 8, Sutherland was a panelist at a seminar in Washington D.C. “James McNeill Whistler: Finding the Man and the Artist,” was hosted by the Smithsonian Institution and accompanied a showing of the documentary.

Sutherland has had a busy year. He gave a talk in his hometown of Detroit on June 4, “Jimmy and Me: My Life With Whistler,” at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. The institute has a significant collection of Whistler’s works thanks to Charles Lang Freer, a prominent member of the city’s business community and Whistler’s greatest patron. The museum is also where as a grammar school pupil, Sutherland encountered Whistler’s work for the first time on a class field trip. Later that month, he addressed The Whistler Society at the London Sketch Club.

Sutherland continues to receive invitations to speak on Whistler and the book. He was featured at the Lincoln Book Festival in England on Oct. 1, was a guest on Ozarks at Large on Oct. 9 and will speak at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville later this fall (date to be determined).

Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake is Sutherland’s ninth book and his first biography of a single subject. He has edited or co-edited six other books. Nearly all of them have dealt with the Civil War or 19th century American society. His 2009 book, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War won the Tom Watson Brown Book Award of the Society of Civil War Historians and the Distinguished Book Award, given by the Society for Military History.

Chris Branam

About the author

Chris Branam serves as a research communications writer and editor for the University of Arkansas.