It’s always odd to think of James McNeill Whistler, of Lowell, as a protégé of Gustave Courbet, of Ornans, France. But for a little while, anyway, he was. An Irishwoman, Jo Hiffernan, came between them. But in the end, you feel, their falling apart came down to a question of temperament.
Courbet, whose distant, straight-backed, slightly paunchy figure is shown standing on the beach in this beautiful picture by Whistler, was the father of 19th-century realism. His painting is earthy, solid, damp with dew. He painted trees, animals, waterfalls, peasant laborers, and fleshy women. Degas said that looking at his pictures was like being nuzzled by the wet nose of a calf.
Whistler, by contrast, was the father of 19th-century escapism. He was a dandy, decadent, and aesthete. His mature paintings are thin to the point of immateriality. They show fog, sky, and water, poignantly eliding differences between them. Distant pinpricks of light. No nose-nuzzling here: Looking at these pictures is like being blown a kiss from across the room by an inscrutable stranger who promptly disappears from sight.
“Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville,” which Whistler initially called “Courbet — on Sea Shore,” hangs in the Yellow Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Whistler painted it in 1865, at a turning point in his career. He had gone to Trouville with Hiffernan, a great beauty with long red hair, to paint alongside Courbet.
Courbet painted seascapes with gusto. Like Winslow Homer working 20 years later at Prouts Neck, Maine, he was attracted to crashing waves. He loved to pile on the paint, working it vigorously with both brush and palette knife.
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