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Art Quotes: Whistler

A collection of art quotes from the painter James McNeill Whistler.

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Paint Thickness: "Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the suface of a pane of glass." -- Whistler
-- Artist Otto Bacher, recalling something Whistler had said to him in Venice in 1880. Art quote source: With Whistler in Venice by Otto H Bacher, page 31, Century Company 1909, New York. Quoted in Like Breath on Glass p27.

On His Nocturne Paintings: They are "not painted to offer the portrait of a particular place, but as an artistic impression that had been carried away [from the scene]." -- Whistler
Art quote source: Transcript of Whistler v. Ruskin. Quoted in Like Breath on Glass p32.

"As to what the picture represents, that depends upon who looks at it." -- Whistler
Art quote source: Pot of Paint by Linda Merrill, p151. Quoted in Like Breath on Glass p32.

"I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and colour first. The picture is throughout a problem that I attempt to solve. I make use of any means, any incident or object in nature, that will bring about this symmetrical result." -- Whistler.
Art quote source: Whistler v Ruskin courtcase, quoted in James McNeill Whistler by Robin Spencer, Tate Publishing.

Finishing a Painting: "A picture is finished when all trace of the means used to bring about the end has disappeared. To say of a picture, as is often said in its praise, that it shows great and earnest labour, is to say that it is incomplete and unfit for view. Industry in Art is a necessity -- not a virtue -- and any evidence of the same, in the production, is a blemish not a quality; a proof, not of achievement, but of absolutely insufficient work, for work alone will efface the footsteps of work. The work of the master reeks not of the sweat of the brow -- suggests no effort -- and is finished from its beginning... " -- Whistler
The Gentle Art of Making Enemies pp115-6 by Whistler, 1892.

"The masterpiece should appear as the flower to the painter -- perfect in its bud as in its bloom -- with no reason to explain its presence -- no mission to fulfil..."" -- Whistler
The Gentle Art of Making Enemies pp116 by Whistler, 1892.

Shadows: "...don't be afraid of your shadows having white in them..." -- Whistler.
Art quote source: Letter to Thomas Delano Whistler, November 1881.

"He [the artist] does not confine himself to purposeless copying, without thought, each blade of grass, as commended by the inconsequent, but, in the long curve of the narrow leaf, corrected by the straight tall stem, he learns how grace is wedded to dignity, how strength enhances sweetness, that elegance shall be the result." -- Whistler
Art quote source: Whistler's Ten O'Clock Lecture of 20 February 1885.

Technique: "Whistler held in his left hand a sheaf of brushes, with monstrous long handles; in his right the brush he was at the moment using. His movements were those of a duellist fencing ... He advanced and retreated; he crouched, peering; he lifted himself, catching a swift impression; in a moment he had touched the canvas with his weapon and had taken his distance once more." -- Mrs Julian Hawthorn, having watched Whistler painting Arrangement in Black.
Art quote source: Daily Telegraph 21 February 1995. Quoted in Whistler: Beyond the Myth by R Anderson and A Koval, p245.

Whistler "labored with pigments so thin as to be merely tinted turpentine". -- Writer John Updike
Art quote source: "Whistler in the Dark", from Still Looking: Essays on American Art, p.95).

John Ruskin's Criticism of Whistler's Nocture in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket that led to Whistler suing Ruskin for libel: "For Mr Whistler's sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now: but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guines for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."
Art quote source: Ruskin's Letter 79, Fors Clavigera, 1877.

Read Whistler's Correspondence online on the University of Glasgow's archive.

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