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James McNeill Whistler and Work-Effacing Work • A Conversation With Lee Glazer

Brett Rawson

James McNeill Whistler (153) letter to Charles Bowen Bigelow, October 5, 1891

James McNeill Whistler (153) letter to Charles Bowen Bigelow, October 5, 1891

BY SARAH MADGES

American Impressionist and portraitist ex-pat James McNeill Whistler espoused that art should be "an effortless expression of aesthetic principles," and his loose scrawl seems to echo that claim. Lee Glazer, Associate Curator of American Art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, however, counters in Pen to Paper that these letters indicate a more controlling figure. Written in the early 1890s, the documents on display here formed part of Whistler's anti-piracy campaign that intended both to protect and promote his art and art criticism in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.

This conversation was a part of our collaboration with The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, Pen to Panel, which celebrated the launch of their latest anthology, Pen to Paper.

SARAH MADGES: How did working on this project inform or change the way you think about handwriting?

LEE GLAZER: The entire Whistler correspondence—some 9000 documents—has been digitized, edited, and transcribed by the Whistler scholars at the University of Glasgow. I rely on that digital edition—so easy to search, to skim, to search! I rely on it in my day-to-day work as a curator of a collection (the Freer Gallery of Art) dominated by Whistler’s work. But this project reminded me of the actual, physical connection between writing, writer, and words. It’s especially telling in the context of someone like Whistler, who was such a clever writer and for whom words were his weapon of choice in his battles against the (to his mind, at least) unappreciative British public. His handwriting has this insouciant, off-the-cuff look that belies the careful thought and intense labor that preceded the final draft. Very similar, in fact, to his art, where, as he said, “work effaces work.”

MADGES: Why do you think these letters are so important, and how did you choose which to discuss?

GLAZER: These letters aren’t necessarily the most important in the Whistler corpus. They were more or less chosen for me, based on the holdings of the Archives of American Art. But, they are quite telling: written in the early 1890s, they were part of a concerted campaign that Whistler mounted to retain control over the publication and distribution of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a compendium of some of his pronouncements on art and art critics.

MADGES: What did you learn or what do you think others could learn about James McNeill Whistler from studying these letters that you couldn't from mere biographical record?

GLAZER: The handwriting in the letters is light and dashing, but beneath the surface is a determination to exert total control. They demonstrate Whistler’s idea that art should appear effortless, betraying no struggle or obvious strain of labor.

MADGES: Do you consider handwriting as visual art, writing, some combination, or something else entirely?

GLAZER: I don’t consider it visual art--but there is certainly a level or art and/or artifice about handwriting that makes it distinct from printed words. When we’re looking at printed words on a page, content and form exist as more or less at the conceptual level. The words themselves, as physical marks or presences recede--unless a lot of attention is paid to graphic design or there is a deliberately emotive use of typography. Handwriting certainly isn’t an unmediated form of personal expression – it conforms to certain conventions that change over time, it can be manipulated for effect, but I do think that it can tell us something about the writer that goes beyond the words themselves.

MADGES: Where do you think we could find qualitatively similar information and insight about an artist and their work today now that people use snail mail for personal correspondence less frequently? Do you think there's a comparable medium or mode of communication in use?

GLAZER: I think that we need look no farther than email and social media: the hand is absent, but there are lots of stylistic tics in “autograph” digital messages. Looking at patterns in these kinds of messages may well become the 21 st-century version of handwriting analysis.

Lee Glazer is curator of American art at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery where she has organized numerous exhibitions including, most recently, Chinamania and Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre. She is the author of A Perfect Harmony: The American Collection in the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and co-editor of James McNeill Whistler in Context, East West Interchanges in American Art, and Palaces of Art: Whistler and the Art Worlds of Aestheticism.