Lisa N. Peters
Recently not one, but two works by Walter Greaves (1841-1930) depicting James McNeill Whistler (1843-1903) arrived at the gallery, one a very Whistlerish drawing of a quizzical Whistler in charcoal and graphite, and the other a pen and ink showing Whistler in the position of an oarsman in a boat, presumably on the Thames. Greaves inscribed both “James McNeil Whistler.”
So who was Greaves and how did he know Whistler? The story, as I discovered, is fascinating, sad, and ironic.Brief biography: The son of a Chelsea boat builder, Greaves began to sketch and paint on his own before he met Whistler in 1860, when Whistler moved close to the Greaves home on the Thames. In the twenty years that followed, Walter and his brother Henry were at Whistler’s beck and call, fulfilling his every need in the studio and otherwise, and assuming so much of a Whistler appearance that Walter was often mistaken for the master from a distance. The Greaves brothers were present in Whistler’s studio when he painted many of his best-known works of the 1860s and ’70s. Walter recalled: “we taught him to row and he taught us to paint, to row with what he calls the Waterman’s Jerk.” Whistler, whose rowing activities on the Thames, aided by the Greaves’ brothers, resulted in many of his nocturnes, remembered the Greaves brothers as his first pupils. The brothers, who assisted Whistler in painting Frederick Leyland’s Peacock Room were with him constantly until about 1880, when in the wake of the notoriety Whistler received from the Ruskin trial, he parted company with his former friends preferring a more sophisticated milieu. He later recalled the Greaves brothers in 1900 as “the boat people.”
Art and Controversy: Greaves, who abandoned his own detailed realist images of Chelsea streets and the Thames after coming into contact with Whistler, continued to create works in the Whistler style in the years after he was no longer a part of Whistler’s life. Apparently he was content to remain in the shadow of his former teacher, identifying himself as a pupil of Whistler, and not attempting to market his own art. Greaves’s work, nonetheless, ended up in the hands of dealers, causing confusion when a group of canvases in poor condition were thought at first to be by Whistler, but later, with the help of Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell (who considered themselves the true biographers of Whistler) they were determined to be by Greaves. Greaves’s “15 minutes” occurred in 1911, when William S. Marchant organized a show of his work at Goupil’s Gallery in London, entitled An Unknown Master. Marchant’s misdating of works and his misrepresentation of their exhibition histories in the catalogue (apparently done in error rather than to mislead purposefully) led the London press to the conclusion that Greaves had influenced Whistler rather than vice versa, causing a sensation and drawing huge crowds. Alarmed the Pennells attempted to right the situation, but they were further incensed when a show of Greaves’s art was held at Cottier Gallery in New York, in 1912, accompanied by a catalogue written by the critic Christian Brinton, which the Pennells felt was misleading in portraying Greaves as a “a timorous, unassuming little man,” whose “life story . . . had gone “straight to the big responsive heart of the British public.” Due to their debunking, which seems mostly based on their aversion to the tone rather than the content of Brinton’s writing, the works failed to sell and were put up at auction, where they brought low prices, while Greaves did not realize any profits in any case, as his paintings had gone from his hands long ago. Marchant supported Greaves for a time, but Greaves seems to have faded from sight after the controversy died down, and his reputation settled back into that of a copyist of Whistler. The Pennells later blamed the London press for the Greaves incident, rather than Greaves himself or Marchant.
End of the story? Yet the humble boat builder’s images are fascinating to our eyes, and worthy of a study of what the master gave to his deferential admirer; in fact, many of Greaves’s works ended up in museums, including the Tate Gallery. Greaves’s images of Whistler capture many facets of his mentor, revealing the capricious character of this charismatic individual and the hold he had on those around him. The image of Whistler in the boat is curious: here Greaves may be the expert sitting in the stern, while Whistler rows with one oar.
Greaves’s work provides a record of life in Chelsea beyond that of Whistler’s more artistically conceived images, reflecting Greaves’s statement to John Rothenstein: “Chelsea was so beautiful that you couldn’t but paint it. To Mr. Whistler, a boat was always a tone. To me, it was just a boat.”