Gabriel Berner, Antiques Trade Gazette, Issue 2480, 20th February 2021


TOM MENDEL - 26th JULY 2020




NOCTURNE - c.1870-77

The White House, U.S.A.



James Abbot McNeil Whistler was an artist who was both lucky and unlucky to be famous in his own lifetime. His output was simultaneously artistic, literary and personal, and it can be difficult to unpick each strand and examine it on its own merits. One of the most muddied areas of Whistler’s life involves his famous series of ‘Nocturnes’ paintings. The fallout from their most significant exhibition was a very public libel trial which pitted the pillar of the establishment, the art critic John Ruskin, against the dangerous Bohemian from America (or Russia, or Paris, depending on his mood). 


The ‘Nocturne’ series are, broadly, characterised by very thin layers of paint, their almost flat picture plane, their moonlit subjects (most famously the River Thames in London) and their restricted palette. In terms of Whistler’s own art, they can be traced to his slightly earlier ‘sea views’ of the 1860’s. Several of these marine views were given musical titles, Symphony (Grey Green): The Ocean for example, and they bear some of the hallmarks of the later works: the influences of Japanese woodblock-prints in the delicate flora framing the lower part of the picture, Whistler’s distinctive monogram, and much of the picture being given over to the water. 


I mention the earlier works because the ‘Nocturnes’ can be viewed as the ultimate development of what had been bubbling away inside Whistler’s mind: despite their apparent simplicity, they required enormous work and experimentation, mixing paint grounds, altering brushes to create new effects, distorting the picture plane as he had never before done and relying on nature as the source (rather than changing nature to make a ‘better’ picture). His process sounds infuriating: he would go out at night, find a view he liked (by no means guaranteed), stare long and hard at it and then turn his back and repeat the details of what he saw to his assistants, including colour and depth just as much as subject. He would repeat the process until he was satisfied, at which point he would “go to bed with nothing in his head but the subject”. If he could visualise the scene on blank canvas the following morning, it was a go, and if not then a bust! (He had begun this by bringing white chalk and sketching on brown paper, but this was not enough for his strict principles).


Whistler himself wrote in one letter, “These creations are the result of much earnest study and deep thought”. To the eye they do indeed appear relatively simple, but as is so often the case that simplicity was the result of extraordinarily hard preparation, involving constant trial and error. Whistler frequently abandoned a hard night’s work if he was not happy with it. It would be too much here to describe in scientific detail just how Whistler must have toiled to achieve them (it has been covered in excellent detail by Stephen Hackney previously). It was not unlike a master chef preparing and then cooking a five course meal on a single stove over a long time: mixing the perfect ground, mixing the paints to keep them from drying too quickly with new formulae, applying wet paint on wet paint with a variety of brushes, mixing as sparely as possible the delicate colours, amending the canvas with a stipple brush, creating atmosphere mechanically but somehow doing so without leaving behind the traces of brushwork (these have appeared as the pictures have aged, so imagine them without any obvious brushstrokes when you see them). Although the techniques were relatively simple and the basic practises were standard for any painter, it is Whistler’s unerring dedication to refining his technique that marks him out. He truly sought to remove any indication of the artist’s hand and to capture the very air of the view, its light and the weather conditions. 


This is not so-called ‘art for art’s sake’, nor is it ‘Impressionism’: it is the culmination of an idiosyncratic theory of perspective, colour and the actual role of an artist. Whistler’s greatest student Walter Sickert put it perfectly late in his life, “I imagine that in time it will be seen that Whistler expressed the essence of his talent in his little panels…the beauty and truth of the relative colours and the exquisite precision of the spaces, have compelled infinity and movement into an architectural formula of beauty”. 

TOM MENDEL - 25th APRIL 2020




Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Acc. No. 17.3.756-2229


One of the things that fascinates me most about fine art is its social context. This is a well-trodden path in art history, and the names of Arnold Hauser, Michael Baxandall and even the thoroughly dislikeable but influential Hegel are familiar to most academic students in this field. I am not really interested in the historiography debates nor approaching social history through the lens of art.

What really catches my attention are studies of artists in relation to their customers, of dealers and how they operated in their day and innovated, and how the art market has evolved from the days of Vasari right through to the present day. 

It is a very broad scope, and I confess I make it easier for myself as I have very little interest in the art dealer that grew into being in New York after WWII; the one which continues apace in its present incarnation of Zwirner, Gagosian, Hauser and Wirth. From the early Renaissance onwards there have been discerning clients, canny artists and a secondary market that fluctuates with the tastes of the times: why for instance is it that English watercolours soared in price throughout the 1970’s and 80’s and suddenly suffered a prolonged cardiac arrest that continues for all but the best of the field to today? Who was behind Matisse’s commercial success in his own lifetime? Where did the practice of collecting drawings and sketches begin, and how did that trade develop through to the rigorous connoisseurship and competitive bidding of today’s Old Master Drawings sales in New York, Paris and London?

To many people these are esoteric questions; one friend I have, presently engaged in her PhD on Early Insular Art (1066 rather than 1766!), remarked dismissively of this curiosity, “Oh God, the history of collecting? You know that’s the least fashionable area in academia imaginable?”  That is why I am not an academic; I am glad that we have people to study the more modern fields of Feminist Studies and Queer Studies and to decolonialise the canon, more power to them (though it must get tiring being quite so fashionable in everything they do!). 

In fairness I can understand where my friend was coming from when she made that remark. I can think of few greater thrills in this world than discovering the tell-tale mark of the collector in the corner of a miniature sheet of paper. That is admittedly not something to which everyone can relate. For me, to know that a 500 year old scrap has passed from, say, the 2nd Earl of Arundel, to Prosper Lankrink, Sir Peter Lely to Arthur Pond, Sir Joshua Reynolds,to Pierre Crozat, only to languish in a drawer until rediscovery in a rural auction is to have a visceral and quite literal grip on the history of art. What made that drawing stand out to each owner could vary enormously or could be obvious in the authorship of the drawing and need to possess that artist’s initial thrusts at conveying their ultimate purpose. 

That is all well and fine and makes some logical sense perhaps to anyone interested in the antique or second-hand. Why the fascination with the art dealer then – the artist should be of primary interest and the hobby of ‘collecting collectors’ secondary, but surely not the cynical and mercantile middlemen? Throughout history it has been the job of the ‘middleman’, the retailer, merchant, buying agent and at times thief, to provide for the tastes of the moneyed. But to stop there in one’s analysis, and say these figures are simply enablers, would be facile: we all know how it is perfectly possible to walk into a shop with no intention of buying anything, only to be charmed and possibly even educated, and to leave with something wholly unexpected. This is true of art just as it is of any other commodity, and more broadly speaking it is a crucial element in what we might call “taste-making” today. For example, the aforementioned 2nd Earl of Arundel was unusually interested in possessing the drawings of the great Dutch master artists of his age and the generation earlier, and the Italian greats as well. But it was the artists, agents and diplomats who he required to locate and secure them who introduced him to new artists, new schools and helped to shape his taste. Consequently he impacted prices at auctions, granted the middlemen further importance and contributed to an hardly nascent and increasingly complex international art market within which he was a force but by no means alone. Taste is never born ex nihilo and rarely comes from a single source. 

Taste drives the development of art whether we like it or not and it is fair to say that the ‘art market’ shapes artistic output just as much as the reverse can be true. When one is given too much power in the relationship – when the originally brilliant Academic art becomes soft pornography and little better than the chocolate-box genre art it pretends it is not, for example – the other has been known to push back, and so art can move forward when the prevailing tastes stultify and stagnate. Surely then the merchants of taste, ever on the search for what might be next, are just as important as the romantically exaggerated artist painting for no one but himself and languishing in obscurity (if not for her dealer!). 

Taken altogether then, the development of markets, the influences on them and insights into the players in them are more than just the dreary sounding ‘History of Collecting’ or bone-dry title of ‘Market History’. In fact it could be said that they are just as valuable as the understanding of ‘the artist’ – after all, when you start to pick at the threads of history, to think that the artist stands above commerce is generally as naïve and fanciful as the idea that genius requires torture and sorrow to create. 

TOM MENDEL - 17th APRIL 2020