“Last night at Prince’s Hall, Mr. Whistler made his first public appearance as a lecturer on Art, and spoke for more than an hour with really marvelous eloquence on the absolute uselessness of all lectures of the kind.” Such begins the very public, very vitriolic, very entertaining feud between the artist James Whistler and the writer Oscar Wilde.
Today Whistler is best known for his Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1—better known as Whistler’s Mother—but in the late 19th century he was a celebrated wit and dandy. Now, who is it you think of when I say 19th century wit and dandy? I’m betting you think of Wilde, not Whistler. While Whistler generally got the better of Wilde in any given interaction, Wilde has left us too many examples of his arch cleverness to be surpassed.
But the two were equally renowned in their day, caricatured in the press and quoted by friends. For example, the popular Punch cartoons of the 1880s featured Maudle the painter (with a monocle like Whistler) and Jellaby Postlethwaite the poet (who echoed famous comments of Wilde), making absurd statements reminiscent of the artists’ aesthetic.
Wilde and Whistler basked in fame. When the Punch wrote that they were discussing two famous actresses of the day, Wilde sent a telegram to Whistler reading, “Punch too ridiculous. When you and I are together we never talk about anything except ourselves.” (Whistler replied, “No, no, Oscar, you forget. When you and I are together, we never talk about anything except me.”)
Perhaps you are beginning to see how these two could get along swimmingly—or become the worst of enemies? Over time, the painter Whistler began to feel as if the poet Wilde were copying some of his famous quotes—and even his opinions on art. Whistler decided to claim ownership of his ideas, before only informally communicated, by delivering his famous public “Ten O’Clock” lecture, in which he set down his artistic principles. The subtle barbs at Wilde in the lecture did not go unnoticed by the poet, who wrote a review both praising and ridiculing the speech (partially quoted above).
Whistler responded by publicly making fun of Wilde’s “naiveté” when talking about painters in his review. Wilde had to reply, and referring to Whistler’s explanations, says, “Be warned in time, James; and remain, as I do, incomprehensible. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
The feud settled down until a few years later, when Whistler publicly accused Wilde of “plagiarizing” some of his ideas. Soon the cleverness of the feud was eaten away by the bitterness. In one reply, Wilde says, “…as for borrowing Mr. Whistler’s ideas about Art, the only thoroughly original ideas I have ever heard him express have had reference to his own superiority as a painter over painters greater than himself.”
And such a shame, too. They were at their best when they didn’t take each other seriously. On the day of Wilde’s wedding, Whistler dispatched a telegram: “Fear I may not be able to reach you in time for the ceremony. Don’t wait.”