Monday, April 21, 2008


Napoleon and Whistler

I have just finished reading a book called “Napoléon et moi !” by the French art historian Jocelyne Rotily. It’s subject is the American impressionist painter James McNeill Whistler, focusing on the winter and spring of 1901 which he spent in Ajaccio.

As well as giving the reader a glimpse of the island’s capital at the turn of the last century (most of his Corsican paintings and etchings are reproduced in the appendix), the book also sheds an interesting light on the inner workings of Whistler’s mind. On the latter, I was intrigued to learn how deeply this American artist hated the British. It seems that some of Britain’s citizens were unwise enough not to elect him to membership of the Royal Academy, and for this the nation received a lifetime’s supply of his wrath. He castigated them in letters to his young sister-in-law and various influential friends, and even took pleasure at British setbacks in the Boer War.

Whistler had been advised to go to Corsica for a rest by a doctor whose opinion he valued, but the book left me with the feeling that he rejoiced in being there because it was the birthplace of Napoleon – Britain’s bitterest enemy from an all too recent past. I love Whistler’s work, but the quoted letters lead me to believe I wouldn’t much have liked this bitter and complex old man.

Napoléon et moi ! James McNeill Whistler en Corse is published by ACFA editions and the author tells me that an English edition is planned. If you can’t wait, you can order the French version on A good read, backed by thorough research.

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