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.
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
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
"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
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
"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."
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.
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.
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
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
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.'
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
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."