View current page
...more recent posts
My original effort was an attempt to understand how Whistler’s vision of the Thames, which is mostly represented horizontally in his paintings, was translated into representations of the vertical reach of New York City. The darkness and mist that covers the bridges and the far shore of the Thames revealed to Whistler an abstract and elemental formal quality that was instrumental in making his art so revolutionary—a deliberate arrangement of colors and shapes on a flat surface. As soon as photographers began looking at the vertical geography of New York, they began to see ways they could capture the unusual forms by covering details in the same cloak of darkness.
Whistler wasn’t afraid to make enemies or to go to court (as in the famous lawsuit against John Ruskin) to demand that he be recognized as a revolutionary artist who had showed urban citizens something they had never seen before. He even compiled his rebuttals to his critics in a book called The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. His influence extended beyond the realm of the visual arts; for example, when Ezra Pound was trying to promote Imagism in London in the second decade of the twentieth century, he cited Whistler’s courageous artwork in support of his ideas. Returning to the visual arts, even so brash and semiabstract a painter as Joseph Stella, whose sharp angles seem distinct from Whistler’s delicacy of touch, also began his career as a maker of Whistleresque nocturnes.
It can be said that Whistler showed people how to paint a “moonlight” (his original term for what he later called nocturnes) without ever depicting the moon. This, coupled with the increasing ubiquity of artificial light, helped liberate the representation of night from a number of qualities that had become clichéd, most notably that it was a time of reflection and pastoral repose that would carry us back to childlike innocence.
But of course the book is not all about Whistler. The motif of the flaneur runs throughout. I try to show that Edgar Allan Poe had partly celebrated and partly parodied this figure in his story “The Man of the Crowd.” What he notices is that the flaneur can’t really make anything happen; his whole job is to observe and comment. But beginning in the late nineteenth century, the flaneur becomes an investigator. Think of Jacob Riis who was dedicated not just to observing the world but also to changing what he saw.