Spending five days a week immersed in a family like the Lees is amazing, but sometimes a break is needed. That is the reason some museum employees (myself included) do not visit museums on the weekends all that often. A little separation at times is in order. For that reason, I always have two books going at the same time. One is my research for work and another on something completely unrelated. Recently I read Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters by Elizabeth Brown Pryor and The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism by Ross King.
Reading The Judgment of Paris one night I came across a familiar name in an unexpected place:
The son of an engineer who built a 420-mile railway from Moscow to Saint Petersburg for Czar Nicholas I, Whistler was a former West Point cadet who had been expelled by the academy’s commandant, a despairing Robert E. Lee, for incompetence and insubordination[i]
My books were not as unrelated as I thought! A quick search in the index of my other book added to the story. Robert E. Lee wrote a number of letters to the now iconic mother of James McNeill Whistler. Transcripts of some of the letters (ranging from her son’s health to his academic standing) can be found in The Daily Correspondence of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee, Superintendent, United States Military Academy September 1, 1852 to March 24, 1855:
Madam. I regret to inform you, that your son Cadet Jas. A. Whistler is quite sick. He was taken this day week with an attack of rheumatism, & went into Hospital, where he has remained ever since, under the treatment of the Surgeon. He does not suffer much pain, but his attack does not seem to yield to remedies, & the surgeon has this morning informed me that the he fears his lungs are seriously involved.
Although I knew it would be painful news to communicate to you on your return to the country, still I thought it right that you should know the apprehensions of the Surgeon, & thus have the opportunity of doing all that was possible, for the present comfort & future benefit of your son.
You may be assured that he will receive every attention & treatment in our power to bestow.
I remain Madam — Yr Obt Servt
(Signed) R. E. Lee Br. Col:
Supt: Mil: Acady[ii]
Mrs. Anna M. Whistler
Care of G. W. Whistler Esq
New Haven Conn
I take pleasure in informing you that your son Cadet Jas M. Whistler having reported for duty on the 28th Inst: agreeably to the orders granting him a leave of absence for the benefit of his health, & having expressed his readiness to be examined in his course of last year, was this day brought before the Academic Board & has passed a satisfactory examination.
His standing in his class is 37 in Mathematics
13 in French
1 in Drawing
& 32 in Genl. Standing
He will accordingly resume his position in his class, as if he had been present at the last June Examination & prosecute the studies of the course.
I am very respectfully Yr. Obt. Servt
Sigd. / R. E. Lee Br. Col:
Supt. Mil: Acady[iii]
I guess we should not be surprised that he was first in his class in drawing. In a letter dated 15 July 1860, about seven years after Whistler’s time at West Point, Robert E. Lee wrote from San Antonio, Texas, to his wife Mary about “little Jimmy Whistler”:
I also send you a newspaper slip which will give you some information of little Jimmy Whistler. I wish indeed he may Succeed in his Career. He certainly has talent, if he Could acquire application. I have but little to tell you my surroundings here & should only have to report the old story of heat, drought, parched plains & ruined crops.”[iv]
It is thought that the “newspaper slip” Lee refers to is a review of At the Piano, a work exhibited at the Royal Academy in London that was favorably reviewed in publications such as the London Times on May 17, 1860.
“The execution is as broad and sketchy as the elements of effect are simple; but if this work be the fair result of Mr. Whistler’s own labour from nature, and not a transcript or reminiscence of some Spanish picture, this gentleman has a future of his own before him, and his next performance should be curiously watched.”[v]
The painting At the Piano is now at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio (photo courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art). The letter from Robert E. Lee to his wife is at the Virginia Historical Society.
Years later, Whistler drafted a letter to George Washington Custis Lee to recommend sculptor Joseph Boehm for a statue of his father. Written c.1879, the letter does not express any ill will Whistler may have felt due to his expulsion:
“Let me recall myself to your recollection as an old West Point comrade who has never forgotten the high opinion all held of yourself and the veneration we had of your Father.”[vi]
That is the danger of thinking about history in a bubble. You could miss that at the height of tensions in the United States between the northern and southern states, some of the greatest art of the 19th century (if not history) was being created and a fascinating personal connection.
-Abigail Newkirk, Director of Interpretation & Education
In addition to the resources here at Stratford and books/websites, I also talked to experts in three states (New York, Virginia, and Ohio) and Scotland. Here are some links if you are interested in this topic:
• At the Piano by James McNeill Whistler – https://www.taftmuseum.org/?attachment_id=1024
• The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler at the University of Glasgow (https://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/)
• The Daily Correspondence of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee, Superintendent, United States Military Academy September 1, 1852 to March 24, 1855 (https://digital-library.usma.edu/libmedia/archives/lee/lee_papers.pdf)
• Virginia Historical Society (https://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources)
• Archives of American Art: James McNeill Whistler collection, 1863-1906, circa 1940 (https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/james-mcneill-whistler-collection-9349)
• New York Public Library Digital Gallery (https://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/index.cfm)
• The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism by Ross King (https://www.amazon.com/Judgment-Paris-Revolutionary-Decade-Impressionism/dp/0802714668/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=)
• Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters by Elizabeth Brown Pryor (https://www.stratfordhall.org/2012/02/reading-the-man/)