Saturday, April 28, 2012

Painter James Whistler ... a West Point failure

James McNeill Whistler, the American-born but later European-based painter, is best known for the 1871 portrait that is commonly called “Whistler’s Mother.”  His art was recognized internationally with awards and honors during and after his lifetime. But before he focused on his art, his younger life took him down a much different path, including a stint as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Whistler’s father, a West Point graduate, was a successful engineer who agreed to help build a railroad in Russia. After his father died of cholera, Whistler and his mother returned to the U.S.  She hoped he would become a minister, but Whistler showed little aptitude or interest in that.  So then, based largely on family connections, Whistler sought and received an appointment to the military academy, which he entered only days before his 17th birthday.

“Whistler took a relaxed view of Academy life,” writes James S. Robbins in Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point, a 2006 book about the people who finished last in their class at (or as in Whistler’s case, were expelled from) West Point. Whistler’s roommate said that he was “one of the most indolent of mortals. But his was a most charming laziness, always doing that which was most agreeable to others and himself.”

Whistler was intelligent and educated enough to pass most subjects without much work, but his grades and class rank were never high. He preferred to spent time drawing sketches rather than studying. His refusal to take his academic life seriously, his efforts to bend the rules (for example, by keeping his hair longer than it should be), and penchant for smarting off to instructors brought many demerits.

For example, when unable to recall the date of a battle, Whistler was challenged by an instructor who asked him what he would have done, as a “West Point man,” if the question had been asked of him at a dinner party.  “Why, I should refuse to associate myself with people who could talk of such things at dinner,” Whistler responded.

Whistler was rather frail and tended to be sickly, factors which did not bode well for the more physical demands of West Point, such as horsemanship. One day he plunged over his horse’s head, bringing a retort from instructor: “Mr. Whistler, I am pleased to see you for once at the head of your class.”

Robbins wrote in his book that Whistler’s offenses “were for the most part not serious – inattentiveness, lateness, carelessness, the kind of thing one would expect.” But the last straw came in his third year, on his chemistry final exam, when asked to discuss “silicon,” a usually solid material that is a primary component of sand. Whistler began his discussion by calling silicon a gas, and his instructor promptly declared Whistler’s knowledge insufficient. After the West Point Academic Board voted to expel him, Whistler appealed. His appeal ultimately reached the West Point superintendent, who was Robert E. Lee, the future Confederate military leader.

A year earlier, Lee had reviewed Whistler’s record when the number of demerits he accumulated reached the point that called for his expulsion. At that time, Lee dismissed demerits for some of Whistler’s less serious offenses, leaving him under the limit and allowing him to continue as a West Point cadet. But now, Whistler had so many demerits that trimming a few made no difference, and Lee signed off on the future world-renown painter’s expulsion from the Academy.

Over the next few years, Whistler bounced around the East Coast before deciding to commit himself to art and moving to France in 1854. There, his career as an artist took off, and he never returned to the U.S. Whistler died in London in 1903.

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