Refined Palette

Scholars say this 19th-century artifact could have belonged to the celebrated American painter

James McNeill Whistler's palette, c. 1888-90. Mary Hoffmeier/Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Those of us who love to look at paintings for the sheer pleasure of it tend naturally to think a lot about the end result and very little about the means to that end. We forget that a work of art is work.

Yet anyone who has ever visited a painter’s studio will have seen the tools of the trade, in regimental order or glorious disarray: brushes, contorted tubes of oils, cans of acrylic paints, stretched canvases ready to be primed—evidence of daunting effort. When a painter becomes celebrated, this evidence takes on an aura, as if invested with the essence of genius. So it is that a palette thought to have been owned by James McNeill Whistler, the 19th-century American expatriate master, has been an object of special interest to scholars at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. According to curator Liza Kirwin, the palette was donated in 1972 by Stephanie Dabo, widow of Leon Dabo, a painter who claimed to have been a student of Whistler’s. Mrs. Dabo, who died in 1974, said that her husband had received the palette from the master himself. Included in the donation were three brushes thought to be Whistler’s, because of their unusual length. (The painter stood several feet from his canvases while working.)

Whistler was born in 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts. As a boy he studied drawing at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his civil engineer father was helping build a rail system. He spent his adult life in London and Paris.

Whistler’s unemotive portraits foretell photographic techniques. “Art should be independent of all claptrap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like,” he once wrote.

One of the first major Western painters influenced by Japanese artists such as Hiroshige, Whistler used diluted oils, applied quickly to give his paintings a spontaneity similar to watercolors. His moody realism separated him from the Impressionists, and during his life his pictures were thought to be old fashioned. But now his best work, and his art-for-art’s-sake credo, seem to prefigure Modernism.

But back to methodology. Like other painters of his era, Whistler was a palette particularist. He prepared the colors on his palette completely before beginning a painting, and is said to have paid as much attention to his students’ palettes as to their pictures. Art critic and Whistler expert Avis Berman says that artist’s materials “are very sensuous—think of the simple act of sticking one’s brush into a thick gob of color. Having a famous painter’s palette is like having a Lou Gehrig baseball.”

There’s also much to be learned from a palette, says Margaret MacDonald, a Whistler expert at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, such as “the way that a painter organized and mixed his paints, what paints he used and what medium—like linseed oil—was used.” A palette can also suggest how stable a particular artist’s paint is and how it should be conserved. Studio art professor Edwin Ahlstrom of Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, calls palettes “historic documents.” He says they “offer insight into how painting was done in pre-modernist times.”

To confirm the Smithsonian palette’s provenance, the archives recently turned it over to Kathryn Morales, a conservation-science technician at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Morales identified a wide spectrum of individual colors—some 20 in all, each with its composing elements—and turned up some anomalies, including cadmium red, a paint not commercially produced during Whistler’s life, and very little lead white, which the artist used extensively. Kirwin says that there was a tradition in the 19th century of saving and passing along palettes, so the presence of anachronistic paints doesn’t rule out Whistler’s original ownership. It is also possible that Leon Dabo, who died in 1960, cleaned the palette and used it himself, with the hope that some of the master’s magic might rub off. Dabo’s use would also explain why the paint daubs are not arranged as Whistler would have laid them out (and as they appear on Whistler palettes in Glasgow and at the Tate Gallery in London), with white in the center of the spectrum and colors radiating out on two sides.

Ahlstrom agrees that Dabo could have used the palette, inspired by the idea of a master having owned it. “As a piece, it’s very elegant,” he says. “But from the moment I saw it, it didn’t look like a Whistler palette to me.”

Is it or isn’t it? Perhaps only Whistler can tell us, and he’s not returning my calls.

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