He was the most notorious and misunderstood American artist of his time, and also the most influential. To this day James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is one of the most recognized names in painting because of his celebrated (and endlessly satirized) "Whistler's Mother, " one of the treasures of the Louvre. He was, to say the least, a character. Born in Massachusetts, he claimed to be a Southerner and wound up living most of his life abroad--in Russia, France, and England (though he could not tolerate more than brief periods in France and thoroughly disliked the English). Whistler's sense of belligerent alienation erupted in ways that were endlessly fascinating to both Europeans and Americans: his insatiable urge to take his grievances to court (including literary and artistic grievances); his feuds and vendettas with such worthies as Ruskin, Wilde, and Beardsley; his acid wit and libelous invective; his ability to set fashions in art, dress, even lifestyle; his love affairs and relentless social climbing--his was a flamboyant life, told here "with clarity, judgment, and liveliness" (Leon Edel).
Comparable to Michael Holroyd's biography of Strachey, this may also be a major biography of a minor figure although as Weintraub wisely points out, the accomplishments of the artist are often overshadowed by capricious live performances of the man - "perfectionist, poseur, poet and prophet" - his own worst enemy who also disposed of most of his friends before he died. This is corporeally and otherwise a much more substantial book than Roy McMullen's Victorian Outsider, expanded and enlivened by the use of infinite contemporary materials, also including a great deal about his pictures with their casual titles (Arrangements, Nocturnes) and his epigrammatic theories about painting (paint "should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass"). The women in his life figure in far more prominent relief than in the shorter McMullen work - the devoted, attractive Jo of six years, the practical, managerial Maud Franklin of fourteen, and finally Trixie who in her death elicits a fraught tenderness in Whistler absent in his other relationships. Then of course there's always his mother, glum save toward her "Jemie" and pious, who in the words of his friend Greaves retired upstairs perhaps to be "nearer her Maker." Whistler in his later, almost psychopathically contentious years, became the almost legendary coxcomb, more finished than the paintings he so often failed to complete - the more youthful bohemian/bon vivant turning into one of those fabulous originals, like Wilde or Beardsley or Robert de Montesquieu of that mauve decade adding a page to the yellow book with phrases coined with stunning panache - "Noblesse Abuse." In any case Mr. Weintraub's commanding work is likely to be around almost as long as Whistler's mother, commemorated in white and black. (Kirkus Reviews)