It is one of the great unfairnesses in life that bad people sometimes produce great art. That is certainly true of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, about whom it is hard to think of anything nice to say. Vain, pugnacious, a rotten father and kind to his mother only because he was terrified of her, Whistler is not the sort of man you relish spending 400-plus pages with. But then you look at his Nocturnes – in which the industrial Thames becomes a serene, shimmering mystery – and you realise you could forgive him almost anything.
Living by the mantra of “art for art’s sake” meant, in Whistler’s case, not withdrawing from the world but hurling himself at it, fists flying. He called his autobiography The Gentle Art of Making Enemies and was careful to follow his own advice. Friends and rivals could reckon on being beaten up by the bantam scrapper, or else find themselves blackballed from their favourite members’ club on his say-so. Keeping a beady eye on his paintings’ prices, he accused anyone who sold or bought too low of personally picking his pocket. No stunt was too crass if it was good for trade: for his Arrangement in White and Yellow show at the Fine Art Society in 1883, visitors were told to arrive wearing cravats, kerchiefs and buttonholes the colour of egg yolk.
Up close and personal, Whistler was even more tiresome, practising the kind of effortful wit that gave young Oscar Wilde dangerous ideas. On one occasion when he accidently shot his host’s dog, Whistler declared: “It was a dog without artistic habits and had placed itself badly in relation to the landscape.” This was delivered in a voice that contemporaries described as “caustic nasal”, interrupted by a laugh like a peacock’s shriek. Then there was his startling streak of white hair, which was not technically his fault, yet still managed to seem like an affectation. Yet despite all this, he was impossible to dismiss. Any writer encountering him found themselves compelled to put him in a book, just to show everyone else what they’d missed. Proust, James, Wells, Du Maurier and WS Gilbert all did their version of the Yankee chancer whose claims of genius teetered between the preposterous and the plausible