Sarah Walden

Shared wit of Whistler and Wilde

Sarah Walden on how the friendship between the painter and the playwright turned sour

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Oscar's play (I was there on Saturday) strikes me as a mixture that will run...though infantine to my sense...There is so much drollery – that is, 'cheeky' paradoxical wit of dialogue, and the pit and the gallery are so pleased at finding themselves clever enough to 'catch on' to four or five of the ingenious – too ingenious – mots in the dozen, that it makes them feel quite decadent and raffiné ...The 'impudent' speech at the end was simply inevitable mechanical Oscar – I mean the usual trick of saying the unusual...

How about that for a piece of lese-majesty. Few would dare write it about St Oscar today, when the aspiration to appear at once infantine and decadent has become universal. Yet the reflections of Henry James on Lady Windermere's Fan seem irrefutable. Audiences 'catch on' to Oscar because the inversion he practised was so formulaic you couldn't miss it, and because he was a naughty as well as a funny man. Like doting mothers the English can never get enough of naughtiness. Yet how deep was his wit, and how original was it? James McNeill Whistler claimed to have been his friend Oscar's tutor, and they were frequently in each other's company. Listening to them together must have been like watching a rap contest of transcendent quality, though the gibes got personal after their break, when capping one another turned to putting each other down.

,img>You could see the initial attraction. Both were outsiders of a sort, one sexually, the other by nationality. Both had a high regard for their art, though their genius was not unalloyed; Wilde's brilliance is currently oversold, for pietistic reasons, while Whistler produced one great painting of his mother, some etchings and the 'Nocturnes'. They also shared a strain of insecurity. In Whistler this was expressed in justified worries about the longevity of his canvases, a concern neatly reflected in the decay of the portrait of Dorian Gray. Each was convinced, again with some justification, that his most lasting work of art was his persona.

And you can see why the attraction wilted. Competing for the same social territory as they were, their relationship was bound to sour. Like much of Whistler's wit the famous 'You will, Oscar, you will' – the artist's response when his friend said he wished he had said something Whistler had – had serious undertones. As Oscar's star overtook his, Whistler cried plagiarism, and he seems to have had a case.

If there seems a Wildean flavour in Whistler's humour, it was one he hadn't learnt from Oscar, who was 20 years his junior. Was it Whistler who taught his young friend the inversion trick, later to become so mechanical? 'The Bible,' the artist once said, 'is a thing that, once put down, can never be taken up again.' With Anna Whistler as his mother, he knew what he was talking about. Wilde also took on Whistler's arty aloofness, nicely expressed when, after peppering a hound during a shoot, the painter blamed it for being a dog without artistic habits that had arranged itself badly in relation to the landscape. Stylistically their jokes could be indistinguishable. A telegram explaining Whistler's absence from Wilde's wedding read: 'Am detained. Don't wait,' and asked how he had come to be born in Lowell, Massachusetts, he said he wanted to be near his mother.

One thing Wilde didn't borrow was Whistler's bitter humour. The less accepted the foreigner felt – and so obtuse was the artistic establishment of the day that the Royal Academy initially refused to see 'The Mother' as a painting at all, one reason why it ended up in the Louvre – the more he adopted a stagy anglophobia. Savouring British setbacks at the hands of the Boers, he referred to the much-vaunted British military elite as 'whipped cream'. 'The English disguise emptiness with impudence' was another sharp remark not calculated to enlarge his circle of admirers.

Had 'the Islanders' taken to him as they did to Sargent it seems likely that his feelings about them would have swung in the reverse direction: fantasising about a knighthood, he once imagined the fishmonger delivering his bill with the words, 'Your little account, Sir James.' And he could be an easy prey to the English vices of anti-intellectualism (Whistler read amazingly little) and facile quirkiness: 'When a tiresome person bears down on you with a stodgy array of learning and argumentation, what you've got to do is simply to say "stocking!" Don't you know? Ha-ha! That's controversy! Stocking!'

As it was, his resentment could give depth as well rancour to his wit. Unlike Oscar's cleverest remarks, sometimes superficial to the point of whimsy, Whistler's tended to have resonance. He was not alone in seeing his rival's reputation as too easily earned. Walter Sickert, a sparkling writer himself, whose collection of journalism A Full House is overdue for republication, objected to Wilde because, 'The English tendency is already so prone to flippancy that I am agin anything that seems to me to nourish it.' And just as Henry James detected a childlike element in his play, Scott Fitzgerald was to say that 'Dorian Gray was little more than a somewhat highly charged fairy tale which stimulates adolescents to intellectual activity at the age of seventeen'.

For all the subversive intent later ascribed to him, Wilde, 'a bourgeois malgré lui' in Whistler's words, was adept at playing the system, much as contemporary artists do today, though with infinitely greater skill and an undeniable genius. What undid him was not just a repressive sexual regime – he would have gone to prison today – as a chronic self-indulgence, discernible in his wit.

Whistler and Wilde were creatures from different continents. Though he spent the majority of his life in Russia, France and England, and for all his vaporous talk of art, Whistler, an American in a hurry, retained something of the Yankee hustler about him. Yet his originality is not in doubt. The experimental techniques he used in painting the portrait of his mother – it was done in ink-thin paint on almost raw canvas, much in the manner of the New York school – were almost a century before their time, and his smart-talk carries fore-echoes of Dorothy Parker, or the best-scripted American comedy.

I wrote my book on Whistler when the apotheosis of Oscar as moral, artistic and political harbinger of modernity was well underway. All that is arguable, but in the wit department it would be wrong to allow the shadow of Wilde to cause the American from whom he learned so much to wither in its shade.

Whistler and His Mother: Unravelling the Mind of a Genius by Sarah Walden is published by Gibson Square Books.