Whistler’s father


Dear Artist,

The psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow in his studies of “self-actualizing people” made some interesting discoveries about the fathers of eminent offspring, particularly sons. It seems that certain dads are perceived as “not successful.” These dads are not necessarily losers, but rather men who risked much and fell short. Maslow’s inference was that sons may succeed because their fathers failed.


George (father) and James Whistler

James McNeill Whistler and his dad George are typical of this profile. George, an army engineer and entrepreneur had trouble with jobs and personal finances. Frequent work changes, employee mistrust and professional misjudgment stalked his life. Nevertheless, exuding bravado, he charmed the Tsar of Russia and died while attempting an ambitious plan to build a railway through four hundred miles of Siberian swamp. In Dr. Maslow’s research the sons of such adventurers who go on to achieve highly are disorderly, sloppy, anarchic, chaotic, vague, doubtful, indefinite and inexact. Maslow considered these to be desirable characteristics for success in the arts and for life in general. Also, these sorts of sons have little need to please others and are often indifferent to what others think.

Whistler, the son, exhibited these characteristics. He also carried on the family tradition of cleverness, wit, wisdom, quarreling and publicity. In 1890 he wrote a book about his movements among the glitterati: The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Being a celebrity was Whistler’s game. Driven to excel, he mastered painting, etching and lithography as well as illustration and interior decoration. Along with his disorderly self-focus came unique imagery and pioneer insights. He named his paintings for types of musical compositions such as nocturnes and symphonies. He believed paintings, like music, ought to be abstract. Forms were to be more important than subject matter. His work was characterized by flattened pictorial elements and decentralized or unsymmetrical compositions.

According to Maslow the traits needed for eminence are “childlike spontaneity, fearlessness in the face of the unknown, attraction to the mysterious and the puzzling.” He also implied a father figure who started something that needed some sort of completion.

Best regards,


PS: “Art and joy go together, with bold openness, and high head, and ready hand — fearing naught and dreading no exposure.” (James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1834-1903)

Esoterica: Father or no father, what is at the base of all this is an unrequited ego. Without ego-power the potential creator goes nowhere. Unfinished business, however enacted, is a force in the attainment of greatness. “As far as painting is concerned there is only Degas and myself.” (James Abbott McNeill Whistler)


James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903)


“The White Symphony: Three Girls”
oil on panel


“Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge”
oil on canvas


“The Unsafe Tenement”


“Moreby Hall”


oil on canvas






Brilliant printmaker and painter
by Barbara Loyd, Austin, TX, USA


“Delphinian Athlete”
by Barbara Loyd

Whistler was the first American to have a work purchased by the Louvre, An Arrangement in Gray and Black. He went to West Point but flunked out and took a job making maps for the U.S. Government, where he learned all about etching, and was fired for drawing cartoons, etc. on the edges of the maps. He has always reminded me of the stereotypical “rooster” personality of short men. Yet, his brilliance as a printmaker and painter cannot be denied. Some consider him the father of abstract expressionism. He financed many of his trips around Europe by selling copies of etchings he made while traveling.




Indeterminate sexuality of Whistler
by Anonymous

Late in life, in 1888, Whistler married a widow, a Mrs. E. W. Goodwin, who died soon afterward. There were no children. Whistler’s sexuality was indeterminate and his marriage could have been a financial or social-image move. In those days even the likes of Oscar Wilde did not admit (in court) that they were gay, so one wonders. Wilde and Whistler were good friends, exchangers of mots, and equally celebrated. A wonderful exchange was when Wilde said of something Whistler had said, “I wish I had said that!” to which Whistler replied, “You will, Oscar, you will.”


Haunted by mom also
by Doran William Cannon, California, USA

Like every woman has had a father problem, every man also has one… not to mention his mother. Maslow aside, the ability to have ‘cut the cord’ at age 15 is the psychological issue. Whistler’s mom obviously had him tied to her black apron strings that in turn were tied to her chair. Maybe she was the source of his father’s frustrations. That painting, like the Mona Lisa, haunts the fibers of one’s neurotransmitters. Haunting paintings are few enough to number on ten fingers.


“Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother”

(RG note) In the painting called Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother, she seems such a sweet lady. By all accounts she was also “a force to contend with.”




Judge independently of parents
by Yonnah Ben Levy, Stanwood, WA, USA


“Second Chances”
oil on paper, 28 x 40 inches
by Yonnah Ben Levy

Those characteristics that make for a great artist apply to women as well. I don’t want to sound sexist here but I see that each individual in their own generation has to be judged independently of either the parents or children or sex. Artists crop up sometimes genetically in a family line. Without the accompanying passion, talents can just fall by the wayside and who is to say why?



Limitations of father failure connection
by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada


“Summer is Here”
oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches
by Mona Youssef

Regarding Dr. Maslow’s research, how many people that we know failed simply because their fathers/parents failed and did not leave them with good patterns to follow? For those who have been able to finish up successfully what their fathers could not accomplish, I would take my hat off and give them the green card. I also wonder why Dr. Maslow had only pointed out artists and in the field of art? Could it be that this was his limit as far as his knowledge and experience reached? Do we really wish to limit our conceptions of artists’ success, their motives, and relate them only to their father’s failures? Or is it reasonable to adapt Maslow’s theory and apply it to every artist? Do we actually believe that every artist is “sloppy, anarchic, chaotic, vague, doubtful, indefinite and inexact?” In contrast, my knowledge is that some artists suffer from being perfectionists because their high sensitivities go beyond their limitations. The good news is that when they push harder, they have a greater success.

(RG note) Maslow actually investigated the backgrounds of more than 400 “self-actualizing people” in many walks of life—not just artists. There were only about 10 painters in the study which included Gauguin, Klee, Matisse, Monet, Modigliani, Orozco and Picasso.

A good overview can be found in Cradles of Eminence by Victor Goertzel and Mildred G. Goertzel.


Central characteristic is ego
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey

The commonality for most “successful” artists from Picasso to Dali, and on, was their superior ego. Adding on to successful people of the world, including business people and political leaders, we must consider other characteristics as well. Amongst them are intelligence, knowing your targets, planning well, using opportunities, using people, never regretting the past, never accepting failures, never blaming the self, never feeling guilty, isolating one’s self from close friendships, being unreachable and so on. Most of the characteristics in that long list were a bi-product of the first one: ego.


Touching the heart of humanity
by Pauline Davis Lorfano, Vienna, VA, USA


“Low Tide II”
watercolor, 22 x 28 inches
by Pauline Davis Lorfano

Art is not restrictive. Art is not exclusionary, it is all encompassing, embraces all philosophies, reaches into the lives of everyday people giving them a vision of the possibilities or the actual. If we limit art to the pretty, to the acceptability, we fail in our quest to touch the heart of humanity, for humanity has all the capability of good and evil and everything between.



Preparation and planning for excellence
by Sandy Triolo, Silver Spring, MD, USA

Regarding Judith Schaechter’s Intuition and faith take over in a recent clickback — in my experience excellent work is created when an act of faith combines with good preparation and planning. In other words, good planning and preparation alone cannot make an exciting, passionate painting, the work must surpass the painter and that is what employing faith and intuition bring to the easel. This is hard work too!


by Robert Billyard, Langley, BC, Canada

We all must have a good shot of audacity — to be “shamelessly bold,” to show “effrontery or insolence,” to go against conventional thought. In the history of art all the great artists have this in common. The answer is audacity — they challenged the conventions of their time, they have gone where others have not dared or opened new doors of creativity. This is not to say we should consciously set out to make great art or be great artists but one way to get things rolling and rise above “writers block” or being a petrified painter is to cultivate an audacious attitude and see what flows from it. A quote that I keep posted on my studio wall is by Rainer Maria Rilke: “Works of art are indeed products of having been in danger, of having gone to the very end in an experience, to where man can go no further.”

Another quote, also by Rilke is “In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.” Being audacious may not always come easily but it propels our growth as artists. Working our way out of difficulty in art as in everything else is a succinct learning experience and trains our instincts. Artists are quite often accused of being naive and this too is an essential quality, especially for artists (less so for politicians), as we are prone to taking on projects oblivious to the full implications, and to achieve success we must take on these unanticipated challenges. Audacity and naiveté, often seen as negatives, are for the artist courting the muse valuable instruments at our disposal.


George Washington Whistler
by Julianna Mahley, Vienna, VA, USA

There may be validity in the psychological theories of Dr. Maslow, but at least in the case of James McNeill Whistler they are built on the shifting sands of inaccurate facts. I forwarded the message about Whistler’s Father to my friend, Paul Marks, who is an internationally known scholar of James McNeill Whistler and a member of the board of directors of the Freer-Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. He quickly phoned to say that this impression of George Washington Whistler is inaccurate.

In the 1840s there were not educational institutions for the training of civil engineers. The exception was the preeminent engineering school the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from which George Washington Whistler graduated. The Army did not want its officer corps overly large in times of peace, so those officers/engineers were granted temporary leave to shrink the officer corps. During these times of leave the engineers undertook engineering projects on their own. Whistler’s speciality was railroads, and he was successful and highly rated by fellow engineers for his work.

The Czar had his choice of engineers for the project in Russia, and it was no accident that Whistler was selected. He was very highly recommended. It was not a railroad through the Siberian swamps that he built; instead it was the railroad from Moscow to St. Petersberg. French was the language of the nobility in Russia at that time, and James McNeill Whistler went to the special school for children of nobility for five years thus making him bilingual in French and English.

Until about 1860 if you had said the name Whistler it would have been George Washington Whistler who came to mind because he was more well known than his son. He was sufficiently respected that the American Civil Engineer Society published a book about him after his death from cholera.

Incidentally, James McNeill Whistler preferred to think of his family as being southern, so he always said that he was born in Baltimore. Actually, he was born in Lowell, Massachusetts where his father was working on a railroad project.


Internet scam?
by Leonard Thompson, UK


“Alnwick Rose”
silk painting
by Leonard Thompson

I received an email inquiry from a man in Nigeria who wanted to know the price of two of my silk paintings. I sent him the information and method of payment. He said that he was happy to pay the amount and could I also purchase two mobile phones to send with the paintings. I suspected a scam or something illegal so I did not reply and I have heard nothing since. However a week later I had a similar inquiry from another buyer in Nigeria. This time I told the person I was not willing to sell my paintings abroad. Perhaps some of your subscribers have had similar approaches. What would your reaction be?

(RG note) I’d be interested in reader input as several requests like this have shown up in my inbox as well. While I have not followed up it strikes me that your Nigerian may have wanted the mobile phones more than the paintings. In this case the customer is liable to return or not accept the art and request reimbursement. Email holds many remarkable wonders. Today alone I have been offered a University Diploma, $24,500,000, and the immediate opportunity to be an Ordained Minister — able to conduct marriages, funerals, etc.


Digital camera for print work
by Ellen West, Gainesville, Florida, USA

Can you offer some hints on the best type of digital camera to buy in order to reproduce artwork for print?

(RG note) For print work (magazines and books, etc) you need at least 4 megapixels. The Pentax S40 is a popular camera right now that sells in a reasonable range. At the present time we are working on a coffee table book and doing the photography ourselves with my Olympus C 750. The publisher has seen our camera work and deemed it satisfactory for book publication. With the advent of digital the business of print-ready photography has been vastly simplified. However, to prepare for giclees or other prints you may have to go to a larger, much more expensive camera.

(Andrew Niculescu note) The Internet is a vast and useful resource for researching any product and, when it comes to consumer electronics, online stores will save you $50-$100 or more. Here are a few web sites that offer professional/customer reviews, buying guides, feature and price comparisons: Amazon.com, CNet.com, Digital Photography Review, and more.


Value in letters
by Anne Copeland, Lomita, CA, USA

“Whistler’s father” is sure to be a healing message for many artists. I was thinking recently how much I have learned and benefited from reading your letters. I have recommended it to so many people, and they too have all learned and benefited from it. You are definitely a classic, and I hope your letter continues for a very long time. I would truly miss it very much if it ever stopped. I always read it entirely, and I cannot believe there is always a message with such punch in such a short space! You’re very appreciated.






On a Mission

acrylic painting
by Bob Heatly, France


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.

That includes Ginger Adkins who wrote, “I studied Maslow extensively in graduate school for my MBA, doing some of my research on him. I often find several occasions to refer to his work in my teaching of Management, Marketing and Economics.”


And also Judy Sjerven of San Diego, CA, USA, who wrote, “My favorite quote from Abraham Maslow is ‘A musician must make music, a painter must paint, a poet must write if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.’ My rendition of this in calligraphy shown left. I had fun with this design. I hope Maslow doesn’t mind the gender change.”




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