Author and art historian, Matthew Plampin, on Whistler’s mysterious muse.
Mrs Whistler started with the art. I’ve been fascinated by the paintings of James McNeill Whistler for as long as I can remember. At the time he was working, artists of the avant-garde were being grouped together, as Pre-Raphaelites, for example, or Impressionists, or Symbolists. And while Whistler had links with several of these groups – he drank a lot of absinthe with Manet and Degas, argued about Chinese porcelain with Gabriel Rossetti, and very probably lost a mistress to Gustave Courbet – his art stands alone. The strikingly spare full-length portraits; the ethereal views of the Thames; the musical titles, the Nocturnes, Harmonies and Arrangements. There is nothing else quite like it in nineteenth-century painting.
I was also aware of a couple of episodes in Whistler’s life that suggested he would make a compelling subject for fiction. Turning his hand to interior decoration in the mid-1870s, he completely remade the dining room of a notoriously cantankerous multi-millionaire in a daring, experimental style – an enterprise that came to be known as the Peacock Room – without the patron’s permission. He then defiantly asked his extremely unhappy customer for a small fortune in payment, sparking off a bitter feud. Soon afterwards, the famous critic John Ruskin wrote a scathing review of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold when it was displayed at the inaugural exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877.
Ruskin accused Whistler of ‘imposture’ and ‘impudence’, and of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. In an unprecedented move, the penniless Whistler sued for libel, thinking of damages as much as anything else. The case went to trial, leading to a series of extraordinary exchanges between the artist and Ruskin’s barrister, as efforts were made to establish what a work of art should be and how much should be charged for it. ‘You ask two hundred guineas for the labour of two days?’ asked the barrister disbelievingly, at one point. ‘No,’ replied Whistler, ‘I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.’ The courtroom burst into applause.
At first, my intention was to arrange Mrs Whistler around these events, following the artist through the late 1870s as – entirely due to his own actions – his life slowly unravelled. My previous novel, Will & Tom, was based around a visit by the young J.M.W. Turner to a Yorkshire country house in 1797. Turner proved a challenging, satisfying subject as he was so elusive – a solitary, determinedly private man about whom much remains unknown. The only real bits of evidence for his stay in this house, in fact, are the pictures he painted of it and an entry in the steward’s ledger. This, of course, is a great opportunity for a historical novelist – a gap in the record in which fiction can flourish.
James Whistler posed a very different sort of challenge. Above all things, Whistler was a creature of society, albeit one with as many enemies as friends. That he was an American made him something of a novelty in artistic London; he was from the South, furthermore, with several family members (his mother included) in self-imposed exile in England after the Civil War. Whistler himself had spent little time in his homeland, having been raised in Russia and then trained as an artist in Paris. His accent was said to be unique, part Southern American and part French; his speech was littered with French phrases and the slang of the English upper class. He was famed for his biting wit, his unconventional sense of both dress and interior decor, and his Sunday breakfasts, to which all aspiring aesthetes would hope to be invited – the young Oscar Wilde was a regular guest in the 1880s. He was also tirelessly pugnacious, seldom missing a chance to pick a fight with one of his numerous detractors or provoke ‘the Philistines’ in some way.
And in contrast to Turner, there is an enormous amount of research material, in which James Whistler is preserved with almost unnerving clarity. His voluminous correspondence enables the close reconstruction of his movements and mindset – sometimes even his progress through the course of a single afternoon. Legal documents, dinner party menus and hundreds upon hundreds of bills permit an intimate insight into the details of his life. This was a fiercely bright, exhausting personality – a man of boundless vanity and near-complete self-absorption. The more I learned about him, the more I found myself thinking not so much about Whistler’s own experiences, but the experience of being around Whistler. Numerous people spoke of their time with him, publishing memoirs after his death or giving interviews to Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell, his first biographers. Most of these were friends in the arts, the majority of them male, with whom he dined, pontificated and rode around London in hansom cabs.
A glaring absence, though, was the person who shared Whistler’s house and his bed, and surely the greatest portion of his troubles: Maud Franklin, the woman he referred to as his ‘Madame’. Maud was half his age and from a modest background – the daughter of a cabinet maker who’d somehow found her way into modelling for artists. She is believed to have first stood for Whistler in the early 1870s, while still in her teens. Soon afterwards she moved in with him, and stayed at his side for the next fifteen years. There is some evidence that Maud had artistic aspirations of her own, although none of her artwork has survived. She is little more than a shadow. Art historians and biographers mention her only in passing, and in the paintings themselves she is anonymous, the unnamed figure in an ‘Arrangement’ or a ‘Harmony.’
Occasional hints in letters and elsewhere suggest that Maud led a strange, slightly precarious double life within the Whistler household. Among company of a more Bohemian persuasion she was accepted readily, playing hostess at the head of the table, favoured for her youth and vitality; revered, even, for her importance to Whistler’s art. With those of a more respectable stripe, however – the minor nobles, gentry and businessmen Whistler courted continually in the hope of patronage – she was utterly beyond the pale, someone to be hidden away. This would have been particularly true during the time of Mrs Whistler, as in the space of the four years covered by the novel she fell pregnant twice, giving birth to daughters who were placed immediately with foster families whilst she and Whistler struggled against a rising tide of penury.
While putting together their Whistler biography in the early 1900s, the Pennells tracked Maud down to the south of France and tried to arrange an interview with her. She refused even to see them. ‘Maud could tell the whole story,’ they wrote reprovingly, ‘but she will not.’ This remark left a deep impression on me. Here was one of the basic limits of history: if a person simply refuses to contribute, then their experiences die with them and are lost. I used the Pennells’ words as the novel’s epigraph, as they convinced me that for a historical novelist, Maud Franklin was the true subject here – the person not thought worthy of record at the time, and who later declined to make that record herself. We can never know how Maud coped with Whistler; what the consequences were for her of his reckless, grandstanding behaviour; what she thought of his paintings, or his friends, or the several calamitous decisions that he made; or why she might not have wanted to speak with the Pennells. In writing Mrs Whistler, I have attempted to imagine it.
Matthew Plampin is a novelist and art historian. His first novel, The Street Philosopher, was one of Waterstones New Voices in 2009 and his second, The Devil’s Acre, was selected for the 2010 Channel 4 TV Book Club. His latest book, Mrs Whistler, is out now.
- Unattributed photograph of Whistler in his studio, late 1870s (at work on a painting modelled by Maud Franklin)
- Nocturne in Black and Gold by James McNeill Whistler, c.1875, Detroit Institute of Arts.
- Arrangement in White and Black by James McNeill Whistler, 1873-6, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington (modelled by Maud Franklin)