Songs on Stone

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A student post by Rose Berry, 3rd year History of Art student on work placement at The Hunterian.

As a third-year English Literature and History of Art student, I had the opportunity to complete a work placement with Lecturer and Curator in Whistler Studies, Dr. Patricia de Montfort. I spent the semester researching the unrealised project ‘Songs on Stone’ by artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), relying solely on sources that were readily available online due to the pandemic. My research is presented in the following blog post, and I hope you enjoy reading about this fascinating project as much as I enjoyed completing it.

Picture this. It’s 1890, a warm June day in central London. Europe has entered a time of relative peace—what France calls la belle époque. A time when the arts are flourishing, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler is rushing along the cobbled street to meet with his close friend and publisher, William Heinemann.

Heinemann is aiding Whistler in publishing a successful—and controversial—book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. The book was a kind of autobiography, but more notably, it was a bold public iteration of his already well-known contempt for the press, the art critic John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde, among others. Heinemann and Whistler spent that spring and summer poring over each detail of the book in Heinemann’s office at 21 Bedford Street in Covent Garden, as well as during breakfasts on the balcony of the Savoy restaurant . The business venture would prove to be exceptionally fruitful, with thousands of copies sold within the first month of its publication 1. Each piece of the book was laboriously combed over to ensure cohesiveness. It would appear Whistler’s propensity for making use of the gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total-work-of-art’, and perfectionism bled into not only his visual art pieces, but also his publishing endeavours, as one of his letters to Heinemann suggests his utter distress that his famed butterfly signature that features frequently throughout the text was (on only one page) printed upside down.

A sample of Whistler’s butterfly sketches for The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Whistler, James Abbott McNeill, Twelve butterflies, 1890, drawing, pencil on off-white card, Hunterian Art Gallery, GLAHA:46144.

The excitement surrounding its publication also meant that Whistler was keen to begin his newest project. It is unclear the precise date, as the letter was not postmarked, and a secondary hand later incorrectly labelled the date 1892, but at some point in between November of 1890 and May of 1891, Whistler wrote to Heinemann expressing his enthusiasm for a new enterprise, stating, “I have an idea! Something amazing!” The idea is never specified in the letter, but it is made quite clear in further correspondence that he was talking about the project of lithographs, ‘Songs on Stone’, which he wished to publish with Heinemann’s help. For Whistler, this would be lucrative for his career as well as monetarily; he had a penchant for marketing, and had been known to be clever when it came to selling his work. Profit was important for Whistler, and there are many recorded instances of his manipulation of the market. In one such instance, he charged almost twice as much for signed impressions of lithographs on larger pieces of paper as for smaller sheets that were unsigned.  

One of the lithographs published in The Whirlwind.
Whistler, James Abbott McNeill, The Winged Hat, 1890, lithograph in black on laid paper, National Gallery of Art.

‘Songs on Stone’ originally began as three lithographs published in The Whirlwind, a magazine that was exceptionally short-lived, being issued for less than a year. The Whirlwind was an Individualist, Jacobite publication—decidedly niche, even in the 1890s. Whistler’s choosing to publish his work in such a small journal as this can provide insight into his pickiness surrounding his choice of a publisher. Previous to his agreement with Heinemann, Whistler discussed releasing the lithographs with a variety of publishers, such as Appleton in New York and an agent for Harper and Bros., James Ripley Osgood. Osgood wrote to Whistler that they would be keenly interested in publishing the works, if he had “it in mind to make enough drawings in this series to fill a volume”. However, Whistler did not work with Osgood to publish the lithographs. Nor did he, in the end, ever complete ‘Songs on Stone’. So, the question is, why?

A portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler in 1878.
London Stereoscopic Company. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, three-quarter length portrait, standing, facing left, 1878. Photograph.

The answer is not simple, and like Whistler himself, is rather complicated. First, it is helpful in understanding how Whistler approached creating lithographs, especially in colour, as those first four to be published in ‘Songs on Stone’ were. A lithograph is an image produced by drawing on a stone (usually limestone) with an oil or wax based drawing tool like a crayon, then moistened with water and gone over with an oil-based ink, sticking only to the drawn image due to the oil and water repelling one another. This is then pressed into paper, essentially creating a stamp. Many of Whistler’s lithographs are comprised of images that evoke the feeling of a wisp of smoke, of a fleeting moment. Although this is compounded by their grey tones, even Whistler’s colour lithographs manage to create this ephemerality. This comes through prominently in Lady and Child, one of the pieces to be published in this series by Heinemann. Whistler was almost certainly familiar with the idea of the flâneur—the urban stroller, the lounger. The two figures lounge in a relaxed, almost slumped position, the linework and colouring evoking the transitory moment. The fleeting, grey image evident in Whistler’s uncoloured lithographs is arguably emphasised with the colouring, the brushstrokes wispy, bringing the piece to life, but also blurring it—the effect is a deeply evocative piece that suggests the recalling of a memory. Whistler’s style was quite inventive, as he would repeatedly transfer the piece to various colour stones to get the exact shading desired. His process was roughly imitative of watercolouring, but the outcome of these lithographs can more accurately can be likened to his pastels2.

Whistler, James Abbott McNeill, Lady and Child, 1892, colour lithograph on woven paper, National Gallery of Art.

In the early 1890s, Whistler travelled back and forth from London and Paris, and the French influence of artists such as Jules Chéret is explicit in his colour lithography. But, “while Whistler had every intention of making a major contribution in this area, he used colour in only seven lithographs” 2, making the circumstances of the project all the more puzzling. To have spent years travelling to Paris for the sole purpose of creating colour lithographs seems like a great waste of time and resources to yield only seven completed pieces. In 1892, an announcement for the publication was even announced with Heinemann, making it known to the public that it was in the works. In his venture to publish ‘Songs on Stone’, Whistler incessantly corresponded with Heinemann and myriad others about his excitement both for colour lithography and for the project itself—so why were so few completed?

Chéret, Jules, Carnivale Poster, 1896-1900, lithograph, Poster Gallery.
Whistler, James Abbott McNeill. Whistler ephemera, “Songs on Stone” announcement, 1892. Photograph.

Overwhelmingly, correspondence points to the answer in the form of issues with printing studios. Belfond’s was a printing studio in Paris run by Henri Belfond, where Whistler was experimenting with lithographic techniques and preparing his pieces for ‘Songs on Stone’. It is explicated in Whistler’s letters that, in a rather interesting turn of events, Belfond betrayed Whistler’s trust by selling a proof of one of his most important colour lithographs, Draped Figure, Reclining. ‘Betrayed’ is a strong word, one that seethes drama, but there is no other word for it, especially given Whistler’s own flair for the dramatic. He repeats in his letters, notably to Heinemann and another lithographic printer, Thomas Way, to be extremely secretive about his proofs, stones, and lithographs, to “show nothing to anyone”, and that they should not be opened “except in your [in this case Way’s] presence”. Whistler stopped working with Belfond, and soon instead turned to Thomas Way himself, and by 1894, Belfond was bankrupt, many of Whistler’s stones were lost, and ‘Songs on Stone’ was never developed past this 2a.

Whistler, James Abbott McNeill, Draped Figure, Reclining, 1892, colour lithograph on woven paper, National Gallery of Art.

Eventually, Whistler also fell out with Way, but not before his son, Thomas Robert Way published a catalogue raisonné of many of Whistler’s lithographs. Whistler had been known to call his lithographs in general his ‘songs on stone’, as exemplified in publications such as The Whirlwind, The Albemarle, and The Studio. In this way, then, Whistler’s ‘songs’ were realised, just not in the way that had originally excited him, his ‘amazing’ idea. The end of Whistler’s life was marred with the death of his beloved Beatrix in 1896, and he made only a handful of lithographs after this year 2b. James Whistler died in 1903.

Jacomb Hood, G.P, photographer.
Funeral of James Abbott McNeill Whistler in Chelsea, London, July. London, 1903. [Printed 1977] Photograph.

In researching this project and its rather sad end, I was quite taken aback by the sense of regret I felt for Whistler himself. Regret that he could never finish ‘Songs on Stone’, when all the letters and correspondence that I scoured suggested that he was absolutely delighted at the prospect of completing the collection of coloured lithographs, and even more so to be publishing them with his dear friend William Heinemann. I would like to end this blog post, then, like this—to remember Whistler and his elation as he was when he was first undertaking this project. To think of him wandering down the streets of Chelsea to meet with Heinemann, creating and experimenting with lithographic techniques at Belfond’s. In a letter to his wife Beatrix (whom he affectionately referred to as ‘Wam’) on October 25, 1891, well into the project’s development, he wrote “the lithograph Songs are perhaps nice – aren’t they? – and it will be worth while to bring them back and show them to his own darling Wam – won’t it!”

To have created pieces this evocative and beautiful—I think it most certainly was worthwhile.

One of Whistler’s last colour lithographs.
Whistler, James Abbott McNeill, Yellow House, Lannion, 1893, transfer lithograph with scraping, drawn on fine-grained transfer paper (keystone) and thin, transparent transfer paper (colour stones), printed in black, green, grey, and yellow on find cream coloured laid Japan, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Reference

  1. Daniel E. Sutherland, Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014): 245-6.
  2. Harriet K. Stratis and Martha Tedeschi, eds., The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler: The Digital Edition, 1887-1894:Return to Lithography, section 375. 
    This is a large digital publication which can take time to download. Further references given below can be reached by navigating in the Table of Contents from the initial download.
    a. As above, “1887 – 1894: Return to Lithography”, Katharine a. Locahan, (Vol 1).
    b. As above, “1894 – 1897 Final Accomplishments”, Katharine A. Lochan, (Vol 1).

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