Details & Cataloguing

English Literature, History and Children's Books & Illustrations


Whistler, James McNeill.

Fair copy of a letter for publication in the magazine Truth, with a small number of authorial corrections including one additional word pasted onto page one, printer's copy with editiorial additions at the head ("Follow copy as to pars") and printer's marks in faint blue pencil, 3 pages, lined paper, folio, Paris, 21 August [1886], with a later calligraphic title page and engraved portrait, in green morocco with gilt lettering on upper cover and inside dentelles, by Riviere and Son, first two pages previously cut into thirds and professionally restored, inkstains, nicks

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Estelle Doheny (book label); sale of her library, Part IV, Christie's, New York, 17-18 October 1988, lot 1644

Catalogue Note

"...We all know that work excuses itself only by means of its quality.
If the work be foolish, it surely is not less foolish because an honest and misspent lifetime has been passed in producing it..."

A lively and outspoken letter-article by the spokesman of the Aesthetic Movement, vigorously attacking artistic mediocrity.This piece was the culmination of an exchange that began when Whistler wrote to the Saturday Review dismissing the work of an elderly Academician, John Rogers Herbert (1810-1890), on the occasion of his retirement from the Royal Academy. Henry Labouchere, the owner and editor of the highly successful Truth, published a defence of Herbert on 19 August 1886 entitled "The Snobs of the Literary Profession", in which, writing as "Entre Nous", he dubbed Whistler the "Saturday Reviler". This current manuscript was Whistler's response, published in Truth on 2 September. The articles by Labouchere and Whistler were both reprinted in Sheridan Ford's unauthorised collection The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (New York, 1890).

From its unconventional opening - "Hoity toity! my dear Henry - what is this!" - onwards, this piece shows Whistler's prose at its most exuberant. He professes himself mystified at Labouchere's defence of an old-fashioned and (to Whistler) unoriginal artist specialising in religious scenes: "I find myself Translating paragraphs of pathos and indignation, in which a colorless old gentlemen of the Academy is sympathized with, and made a hero of, for no better reason that that he is old". It is the mere vanity of those acquainted with mediocre artists that leads to their praise ("...it flatters their own places in history - famous themselves - the friends of the famous!..."), but such empty praise is a betrayal of Art:

"The great truth you have yet to understand, is that it matters not at all whom you prefer in ... the excellent army of Mediocrity - The differences between them being infinitely small - merely microscopic - as compared to the vast distances between any one of them and the Great. - They are the Commercial Travellers of Art, whose works are their wares - and whose Exchange is the Academy." 

This piece has at its heart the key doctrine "Art for Art's Sake" and is the most significant Whistler manuscript to have appeared at auction in more than twenty years.

English Literature, History and Children's Books & Illustrations