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FEB. 1, 1957



When Whistler left West Point in 1854 he had not only to face the disappointment of his mother, but to find another career. The plan now was to apprentice him to Mr. Winans, in the locomotive works at Baltimore.

Mr. Frederick B. Miles writes us: "It was in 1854 that I first met Whistler in Baltimore, after he left West Point, at the house of Thomas Winans, who had returned from Russia. I was apprenticed to the loco. works of old Mr. Ross Winans, Thomas Winans' father. His elder brother, George Whistler, was a friend of my family; had been superintendent of the New York and New Haven Railroad, and had married Miss Julia Winans, sister of Thomas Winans, then came into the loco. works as partner and superintendent. I was in the drawing-room under him.

"Whistler was staying with Tom Winans or his brother, George Whistler. They were perplexed at his 'flightiness'--wanted him to enter the loco. works. His younger brother William was an apprentice along with me. But Jem never really worked. He spent much of his several short stays and two long ones in Baltimore loitering about the drawing-office and shops, and at my drawing-desk in Tom Winans' house. We all had boards with paper, carefully stretched, which Jem would cover with sketches, to our great disgust, obliging us to stretch fresh ones, but we loved him all the same. He would also ruin all our best pencils, sketching not only on the paper, but also on the smoothly finished wooden backs of the drawing-boards, which, I think, he preferred to the paper side. We kept some of the sketches for a long time. I had a beauty--a cavalier in a dungeon cell, with one small window high up. In all his work at that time he was very Rembrandtesque, but, of course, only amateurish. Nevertheless he was studying and working out effects."

Whistler saw enough of the locomotive works to know that he did not want to be an apprentice, and it was not long before he left Baltimore for Washington. To us he spoke as if he had gone to Washington straight from West Point. He was with us on the evening of September 15, 1900, after the news had come from the Transvaal of President Kruger's flight, and our talking of it led him back to West Point, and so to the story of his days in the service of the Government. He followed the Boer War with intense interest:

"The Boers are as fine as the Southerners--their fighting would be no discredit to West Point," and he was indignant with us for looking upon Kruger's flight as diplomatically a blunder. "Diplomatically it was right, you know, the one thing Kruger should have done, just as, in that other amazing campaign, flight had been the one thing for Jefferson Davis, a Southern gentleman who had the code. I shall always remember the courtesy shown me by Jefferson Davis, through whom I got my appointment in the Coast Survey.

"It was after my little difference with the Professor of Chemistry as West Point. The Professor would not agree with me that silicon was a gas, but declared it was a metal; and as we could come to no agreement in the matter, it was suggested--all in the most courteous and correct West Point way--that perhaps I had better leave the Academy. Well, you know, it was not a moment for the return of the prodigal to his family or for any slaying of fatted calves. I had to work, and I went to Washington. There I called at once on Jefferson Davis, who was Secretary of War-a West Point man like myself. He was most charming, and I--well, from my Russian cradle, I had an idea of things, and the interview was in every way correct, conducted on both sides with the utmost dignity and elegance. I explained my unfortunate difference with the Professor of Chemistry--represented that the question was one of no vital importance, while on all really important questions I had carried off more than the necessary marks. My explanation made, I suggested that I should be reinstated at West Point, in which case, as far as I was concerned, silicon should remain a metal. The Secretary, courteous to the end, promised to consider the matter, and named a day for a second interview.

"Before I went back to the Secretary of War, I called on the Secretary of the Navy, also a Southerner, James C. Dobbin, of South Carolina, suggesting that I should have an appointment in the Navy. The Secretary objected that I was too young. In the confidence of youth, I said age should be no objection; I 'could be entered at the Naval Academy, and the three years at West Point could count at Annapolis.' The Secretary was interested, for he, too, had a sense of things. He regretted, with gravity, the impossibility. But something impressed him; for, later, he reserved one of six appointments he had to make in the marines and offered it to me. In the meantime, I had returned to the Secretary of War, who had decided that it was impossible to meet my wishes in the matter of West Point; West Point discipline had to be observed, and if one cadet were reinstated, a dozen others who had tumbled out after me would have to be reinstated too. But if I would call on Captain Benham, of the Coast Survey, a post might be waiting for me there."

Captain Benham was a friend of his father, and Whistler was engaged in the drawing division of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, at the salary of a dollar and a half a day. This appointment he received on November 7, 1854, six months after he had left West Point. There was nothing to appeal to him in the routine of the office. What he had to do he did, but with no enthusiasm.

"I was apt to be late, I was so busy socially. I lived in a small room, but it was amazing how I asked and went everywhere--to balls, to the Legations, to all that was going on.

Labouchere, an attaché at the British Legation, has never ceased to talk of me, so gay, and, when I had not a dress suit, pinning up the tails of my frock-coat, and turning it into a dress-coat for the occasion. Shocking!"

Mr. Labouchere has told this story in a letter to us: "I did know Whistler very well in America about fifty years ago. But he was then a young man at Washington, who--if I remember rightly--had not been able to pass his examination at West Point and had given no indication of his future fame. He was rather hard up, I take it, for I remember that he pinned back the skirt of a frock--coat to make it pass as a dress--coat at evening parties. Washington was then a small place compared with what it is now, where everybody--so to say--knew everybody, and the social parties were of a simple character. This is really all that I remember of Whistler at that time, except that he was thought witty and paradoxically amusing!"

But long before something in his dress drew attention to him. Though he was never seen in the high--standing collar and silk hat of the time, some remember him in a Scotch cap and a plaid shawl thrown over his shoulder, then the fashion; others recall a slouch hat and cloak, his coat, unbuttoned, showing his waistcoat; while traditions of his social charm come from every side. Adjutant--General Breck is responsible for the story of Whistler having invited the Russian Minister--others say the Chargé d'Affairs--Edward de Stoeckl, to dine with him, carrying the Minister off in his own carriage, doing the marketing by the way, and cooking the dinner before his guest in the room where he lived. And it has been said that never was the Minister entertained by so brilliant a host while in Washington.

Mr. John Ross Key, a fellow draughtsman in the Coast Survey, says that this room was in a house in Thirteenth Street, near Pennsylvania Avenue, and that Whistler usually dined in a restaurant close by, kept by a Mr. And Mrs. A. Gautier. According to the late A. Lindenkohl, another fellow draughtsman, Whistler also lived for a while in a house at the north-east corner of E. and Twelfth Streets, a two storey brick building which has lately been pulled down. He occupied a plainly but comfortably furnished room, for which he paid ten dollars a month. The office records show that he worked six and one--half days in January, and five and three--fourths in February. He usually arrived late, but, he would say, it was not his fault. "I was not too late; the office opened too early." Lindenkohl described an effort to reform him:

"Captain Benham took occasion to tell me that he felt great interest in the young man, not only on account of his talents, but also on account of his father, and he told me that he would be highly pleased if I could induce Whistler to be more regular in his attendance. 'Call at his lodgings on your way to the office,' he said, 'and see if you can't bring him along.'

"Accordingly, one morning, I called at Whistler's lodgings at half--past eight. No doubt he felt somewhat astonished, but received me with the greatest bonhomie, invited me to make myself at home, and promised to make all possible haste to comply with my wishes. Nevertheless he proceeded with the greatest deliberation to rise from his couch and put himself into shape for the street and prepare his breakfast, which consisted of a cup of strong coffee brewed in a streamtight French machine, then a novelty, and also insisted upon treating me with a cup. We made no extra haste on our way to the office, which we reached about half-past ten--an hour and a half after time. I did not repeat the experiment." Lindenkohl said that Whistler spoke of Paris with enthusiasm, that he sketched sometimes from the office windows, and made studies of people, taking the greatest interest in the arrangement and folds of their clothes. Whistler showed him "several examples done with the brush in sepia, in old French or Spanish styles, whatever this may mean. Mr. Key describes Whistler as "painfully near--sighted," and always sketching, even on the walls as he went downstairs. Though in Washington only a few months, he left the impression of his indifference to work except in the one form in which work interested him--his art.

If nothing else were known of this period, it would be memorable for the technical instruction he received in the Coast Survey. His work was the drawing and etching of Government topographical plans and maps, which have to be made with the utmost accuracy and sharpness of line. His training, therefore, was in the hardest and most perfect school of etching in the world, a fact never until now pointed out. The work was dull, mechanical, and he sometimes relieved the dullness by filling empty spaces on the plates with sketches. Captain Benham told him plainly, Whistler said, that he was not there to spoil Government coppers, and ordered all the designs to be immediately erased. This was Whistler's account to us. But Mr. Key, in his Recollections of Whistler, published in the Century Magazine (April 1908), says that these sketches were confined to the experimental plate given to Whistler, as to all beginners, and he adds that he watched Whistler through the process of preparing and etching it.

Only two plates have been as yet, or probably ever will be, found in the office that can be attributed, wholly or in part, to Whistler: the Coast Survey, No. I, and No.2, Anacapa Island, first described in the Catalogue of the Whistler Memorial Exhibition in London, 1905. The Coast Survey, No. I, is a plate giving two parallel views, one above the other, of the coast-line of a rocky shore, the lower showing a small town in a deep bay with, below them both to the extreme left, a profile map. Whistler was unable to confine himself to the Government requirements. In the lower design, chimneys are gaily smoking, and on the upper part of the plate several figures, obviously reminiscent of prints and drawings, are sketched: an old peasant woman; a man in a tall Italian hat, or, Mr. Key says, Whistler himself as a Spanish hidalgo; another in a Sicilian bonnet; a mother and child in an oval, meant for Mrs. Partington and Ike, as Mr. Key remembers; a battered French soldier; a bearded monk in a cowl. The drawing is schoolboy--like, though it shows certain observation, but the biting is remarkable. The little figures are bitten as well and in the same way as La Vieille aux Loques, etched three or four years afterwards; to look at them is to know that Whistler was a consummate etcher technically before he left the Coast Survey. There is no advance in the biting of the French series. So astonishing is this mastery that , if the technique in some of the French plates were not similar, one would be tempted to doubt whether Whistler etched those little figures in Washington, especially as the plate is unsigned. The plate escaped by chance. Mr. Key, to whom it was given to clean off and use again, asked to keep it, and it was sold to him for the price of old copper. It is still in existence.

The second plate, Anacapa Island, is signed with several names. Whistler etched the view of the eastern extremity of the island, for many lines on the rocky shore resemble the work in the French series, and also the two flights of birds which, though they enliven the design, have no topographical value. This plate was finished and published in the Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey, 1855. There is said to be a third plate, a chart of the Delaware River, but we have never seen it and can find out nothing about it.

One other record of Whistler at the Coast Survey remains, but of a different kind. He liked to tell the story. Captain Benham used to come and look through the small magnifying glass each draughtsman in this department had to work with. One day, Whistler etched a little devil on the glass, and Captain Benham looked through it at the plate. Whistler described himself to us, lying full length on a sort of mattress or trestle, so as not to touch the copper. But he saw Captain Benham give a jump. The Captain said nothing. He pocketed the glass, and that was all Whistler heard of it until many years afterwards, when, one day, an old gentleman appeared at his studio in Paris, and by way of introduction took from his watch--chain a tiny magnifying glass, and asked Whistler to look through it--"and," he said, "well--we recognised each other perfectly."

Captain Benham is dead, but his son, Major H.H. Benham, writes us: "I have heard my father tell the story. He was very fond of Whistler, and thought most highly of his great ability--or rather genius, I should say."

Genius like Whistler's served him as little at the Coast Survey as at West Point. He resigned in February 1855. His brother, George Whistler, and Mr. Winans tried again to make him enter the locomotive works in Baltimore. He was twenty--one, old enough to insist upon what he wanted, and what he wanted was to study art. Already at St. Petersburg his ability had struck his mother's friends. At Pomfret and West Point he owed to his drawing whatever distinction he had attained. And there had been things done outside of school and Academy and office work, he told us--"portraits of my cousin Annie Denny and of Tom Winans, and many paintings at Stonington that Stonington people remembered so well they looked me up in Paris afterwards. Indeed, all the while, ever since my Russian days, there had been always the thought of art, and when at last I told the family that I was going to Paris, they said nothing. There was no difficulty. They just got me a ticket. I was to have three hundred and fifty dollars (seventy pounds) a year, and my stepbrother, George Whistler, who was one of my guardians, sent it to me after that every quarter."

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

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