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.
Up until the trip to Trouville, Whistler had painted and etched pictures that revealed the influence not only of Courbet but of the earthy, finely textured Dutch tradition. But he was beginning to feel technically inadequate to this idiom. He was drawn in another direction — toward the insouciance of Manet, toward the realm of music, and toward the decorative flatness of Japanese prints.
“Harmony in Blue and Silver” is very close in composition to Courbet’s “Seacoast at Palavas,” painted fractionally earlier. But where Courbet’s work is thickly textured, Whistler’s paint is thin, and the space remains remarkably flat. This is partly a result of the high horizon line. But it’s just as much the result of the visible bands of color that sweep across the canvas, accentuating its two-dimensionality.
There is an air of artifice, of unreality, to the picture, which Whistler ratcheted up over the next few decades of his career.
The following year, dissatisfied and feeling he had reached a point of crisis in his career, Whistler escaped across the Atlantic to Valparaiso in Chile, hoping to lend help to the Chileans in their war with Spain. He authorized Hiffernan to act as an agent for sales of his work, and left her money enough for household expenses.
While he was away, Courbet used Hiffernan as a model for some of the most erotically charged pictures of his career, including his notorious lesbian fantasy, “The Sleepers.” The two almost certainly had an affair.
Realism, eh. Who needs it?
After that, Whistler no longer painted like Courbet. He painted like Whistler.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.