Whistler’s J. Becquet, Sculptor (1859)

Whistler's etching here is an excellent example of how an initial focus on the odd aspects of a composition often bear fruit.1 And what's odd here is the unfinished space in the center. Who draws like that, in seeming circles from the outside in?

And, although the sitter is obviously a cellist, the title curiously calls him a sculptor. It's another self-referential hint because the traditional credit line in Latin for the engraver of a reproductive print would be: "[Artist's name] sculpit". The musician, as we will see, is a reproductive sculptor and so is Whistler.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Whistler, J. Becquet, Sculptor (1859) Etching on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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With the cello barely there, the visible part of its bow resembles an engraver's burin or pencil drawing the cello (see arrow).2 This makes sense because Whistler often gave works musical titlesAnd Becquet "drawing" his cello on paper once faced Whistler "still drawing" Becquet thus implying the paper is a mirror.3 What's more, the womb-like shape of the absent instrument uses human conception, i.e. reproduction, as a visual metaphor for mental conception while making the male cellist androgynous, both common themes in art.4

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Whistler's J. Becquet, Sculptor with illustration of foetus, inset

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The dark, insistent lines enveloping Becquet are curious too. Though not a literal description of anything, I believe they refer to a type of Renaissance painting known as the Madonna del Parto, the Virgin about to give birth (right). If so, Becquet's womb is the Virgin's and Whistler's work of art is divine.5 

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Whistler, J. Becquet, Sculptor
R: Maestro della Madonna del Parto, Madonna del Parto (c.1490-1510)
 

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This sense of becoming and ongoing creation is also present in the musician's cap which has, hidden within it, a rough depiction of Whistler's own face with an "eye" on top and moustache below (top L and bottom). Note how the one "eye" has a tear-duct next to the "nose"; the other "eye" is absent to indicate the two contrasting forms of an artist's vision - insight and "out-sight" to nature. It's a common tactic.6 Thus this veiled and partial "self-portrait" is born from Becquet's head as though a self-portrait in the making, which it is.7

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top and center L: Detail and diagram of Whistler's J. Becquet, Sculptor
Top and center R: Detail and diagram of a photographic portrait of Whistler
Bottom: Detail of Whistler's J. Becquet, Sculptor

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Great poetry, visual or otherwise, is often disjunctive and a challenge. Our job, whether reader or viewer, is to interpret the obscurities in the "text" in such a way that the poem makes more sense. This, it has been said, is a large part of poetry's charm.8 One trick we therefore use in visual art is to start where the image makes least sense, where the logic apparently fails, because, if we can make sense of the "errors" there within the EPPH paradigm, we generally make sense of the whole.







 

Captions for image(s) above:

Whistler, J. Becquet, Sculptor (1859)

Click image to enlarge.

More Works by Whistler

Notes:

1. See EPPH post: Errors! Errors! Errors! (2012).

2. See the EPPH theme on music with relevant examples: Music as Art and Art on Stage.

3. For the significance of the similar moustache, see Portraiture. For the surface of the sheet as a mirror, go to Mirrors.

4. For more on the womb and conception, see Sexual Conception as Mental Conception. For the female feature in a man, Androgyny.

5. See Divine Artist and Artist as Christ

6. See Insight-Outsight.

7. See Cubism Explained (2011) for a description of how objects in mental images are most likely to be distorted and fragmented and seen from multiple viewpoints. A good example is described in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1484-6): Part 2

8. James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press) 2004, p. xii

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 23 Nov 2016. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.