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Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 07/11/1834–07/17/1903)


Medium oil on canvas Measurements H: 90 x W: 48 in. (228.6 x 121.9 cm) Credit Purchase Accession Number 96.2 Location Gallery 7, Scaife Galleries


James Abbott McNeill Whistler, painter, etcher, pastelist, and designer, was surely the most notorious American-born artist of his generation. As one of the important innovators in late-19th-century art, he was also instrumental in realigning the aesthetic priorities of his age. In later life, Whistler came to favor a portrait format in which the subject, dressed in dark clothing, stood full length against a black background. Although the portraits bore various titles, he called eleven of them Arrangement in Black. The museum's Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Senor Pablo de Sarasate may be Whistler's most distinguished male portrait of this type. The sitter, the Spaniard Pablo Martin Melitón de Sarasate y Navascués (1844-1908), was then Europe's violin virtuoso. Like Whistler, he was a small man much taken with being the focus of public attention. The distinctiveness of Whistler's portrait of Sarasate relies on two conceits: the placement of the figure and the attention-getting placement of the sole prop, the violin. Held full face against the picture plane, the violin creates a spidery, two-dimensional extension of Sarasate's own thin form. The figure, high on the picture plane against black, nearly shadowless surroundings, generates considerable spatial ambiguity. Sarasate's body appears to be floating before the viewer. The reeded, gilt frame, intermittently painted in a fish-scale pattern and signed with a butterfly, is Whistler's design. This portrait was Whistler's entry in the first Carnegie International in 1896. Its subsequent purchase made it Carnegie Institute's second acquisition for the permanent collection and the fourth acquisition of a Whistler by an American museum.

Artist Bio

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Whistler spent much of his childhood in Russia, studied art in Paris, and painted his most important paintings in England. His earliest canvases related closely to the work of such French painters as Courbet, Degas, and Fantin-Latour; but after his move to London in 1860 he rejected French "Realism" and developed the notion that paintings should depend not on representation or narrative content but on arrangements of form and color that evoke mood somewhat as music does.

Whistler's draftsmanship was both revolutionary and influential; to American artists he was undoubtedly the most influential draftsman of the nineteenth century. His drawings, like his paintings, stress evocation of mood rather than description and are original in both their manner of linework and their choice of media. As David Curry has pointed out, in a recent catalogue, Whistler was deeply influenced by artists of the French eighteenth century, particularly Watteau. From Watteau he derived a delight in colored and textured papers and a love of pastel, chalk, charcoal, and other granular materials. Unlike most French masters of pastel, however, Whistler did not attempt to duplicate the effects of paint and employed little stumping or blending. His drawings remain predominantly linear in execution: in fact, his use of crosshatching and shading, although more shadowy in effect, relates most closely to mid-nineteenth-century book and magazine illustration. This is not surprising considering that Whistler's earliest sketches were copies and imitations of works of this type by masters ranging from Cruikshank to Gavarni.

For both etchings and drawings Whistler favored unusual papers. His friend and biographer Joseph Pennell wrote, in an account of an excursion in Paris, that Whistler exulted in the discovery of three folio volumes of old paper, which had been used to press a collection of dried leaves; and he observed in another account, of Whistler's early years in Paris from 1855 to 1859, that, "he was then already hunting for beautiful old paper, loitering at the boxes along the quais, tearing out the fly-leaves from the fine old books he found there."