“The time has gone by when a man shall be born without being consulted!”
James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born on July 10, 1834 at
Lowell, Massachusetts, in the The United States of America.
So your first biography begins. And were it possible
that we could meet, I might begin along similar lines,
like another American, who spying your signature
appearance in the lobby of the Carlyle, said:
“You know, Mr. Whistler, we were both born at Lowell, and at
very much the same time. There is only the difference of a year—
you are sixty-seven and I am sixty-eight.”
You know, a little small talk. Find some common ground.
Ain’t that like us Americans? But I’d have to reckon
a lot of babies arrived in Lowell that year.
It’s not as if you sauntered out of the womb
with top hat, monocle, weskit and walking stick;
or that young woman your mother’d already become
the aged widow, arranged and painted, purchased
by the French, where she hangs in the Musée d’Orsay.
Nope. Something happened in between. A metamorphosis of sorts.
But more than the numb compulsion of caterpillar
to butterfly; rather, an assertion, with a flourish,
like the butterfly—with stinger—by which you sign your letters;
or the way you squeezed the history of culture
into a single lecture, presented at ten o’clock of a Friday
(that the refined would have time to dine) . . . . Something akin
to your style, which begged and defied caricature: “Quite too
Utterly Utter,” the title of a music hall song
that granted your fashion the honor of mockery.
For after all, any fool can be born. No talent in that;
no Selection Committee to pass through for membership
in the populace. Why, popularity, to you, was a painter’s
perdition. And so, to the fellow American extending his hand:
“Sir, I do not choose to be born at Lowell, and I refuse
to be sixty-seven.”