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July 2, 2012
Moments in Art
A Very Fishy Story
by Lawrence Jeppson

In America, Whistler is best known for his painting Whistler's Mother or Arrangement in Gray and Black, but in Paris, according to legend still told in the art world, he once was more famous for singing off-key in his bath and the bizarre demise of his pet fish.

Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 1, also known as Whistler's Mother, 1977, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Though born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834, James Abbott McNeill Whistler spent his boyhood in Russia, where his father built railroads fo the Czar. At one point the acerbic painter claimed he was born in St. Petersburg. In fact he had spent some time in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts.

Although his Southern mother wanted him to become a minister, he came back to the U.S. to enter West Point, which he quickly quit. At 19, determined to become an artist, he moved to Paris, where his obnoxious voice brought more immediate fame than his painting.

Whistler stayed in France only four years. Briefly he was allied with the formidable Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), but the only thing they had in common was an unflagging hostility towards authority. A closer friend was Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), a painter his own age, but they had a falling out. He was influenced by Poet Charles Baudelaire and Novelist Théophile Gautier, whose ideas of music and art influenced Whistler.

To his neighbors, Whistler's raucous rhapsodizing was unbearable. The worst moments came when the painter bathed. Being undressed and immersed lifted the final feather of restraint.

They pleaded with him for peace. No avail. They begged for consideration. Deaf ears. The more they protested, the more often he bathed.

Finally the neighbors conspired to avenge their persecution.

Whistler had a pet goldfish. He loved it dearly, perhaps because it couldn't talk back. On pleasant days he put it on his balcony to enjoy the sun. He did so one day and retired to his bath. He expected his neighbors would pound the walls and ceiling. As always, he was indifferent to the noisy protest.

This day while he sang, the angry people above lowered a fishing line to his balcony. They caught Whistler's pet fish. Minutes later they dropped it back into its bowl.

Singing a regaling cadenza, Whistler pranced from the bath to the balcony to serenade his fish. He saw it and exploded in rage.

His pet fish had been French fried!

Whistler moved permanently to London, and many years later he wrote The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.

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