Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin

Thanks to everyone who commented on my post earlier this month asking for recommendations of novels about artists; I now have a whole list of titles and authors to investigate – and as promised, here are my thoughts on one of my recent reads, Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin. The Whistler the title refers to is, of course, the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and ‘Mrs Whistler’ is his model, muse and mistress, Maud Franklin. Although I was familiar with a few of his most famous paintings, such as Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (known as Whistler’s Mother), I knew nothing about his personal life or what sort of man he was, and I’m sorry to say that I hadn’t even heard of Maud.

The story of Maud’s relationship with Whistler is played out against a backdrop of some of the significant events that occurred in their lives between 1876 and 1880. The first part of the novel concentrates on the controversial Peacock Room, a decorative interior Whistler creates in the dining room of Frederick Richards Leyland’s London townhouse. Leyland is not at all happy when he sees what Whistler has done and a bitter feud follows. Later, the novel explores Whistler’s decision to sue the art critic John Ruskin for libel after he describes Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold as ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.

These two incidents form the basis of the plot and as I had no prior knowledge of any of this, I found that I was learning a lot about Whistler, his paintings and his life. But this is not so much a book about Whistler as a book about what it was like to know Whistler, to be near him and to share both his triumphs and his troubles. Maud Franklin must have known him as well as anyone – she was with him for around fifteen years and they had two children together (whom she had to see raised by foster parents), which makes her a logical choice of character to focus on. However, according to Plampin’s author’s note the real Maud had refused to talk to Whistler’s biographers who complained that ‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not’. This means Plampin has had to use his imagination to decide how Maud felt about Whistler and the other people in his life and how she may have thought, spoken and reacted.

Whistler, at least as seen through the fictional Maud’s eyes, does not come across as a very pleasant man. He’s self-absorbed, he treats Maud badly at times and often lacks awareness and judgement, which is particularly illustrated by his relationship with his friend Charles Augustus Howell, known as Owl. It is obvious to the reader that Owl cannot be trusted, but Whistler remains irritatingly loyal to him, not able to see what we and (eventually) Maud can see. I did have sympathy for Maud and wouldn’t have blamed her if she had left Whistler, but she stayed with him, I suppose, through a combination of love and a need for security. It’s a sad and often frustrating story, but told in a way that I found believable and convincing.

This is the first book I have read by Matthew Plampin, but I know he has written four others. If you’ve read any of them, maybe you can help me decide which one I should read next.

13 thoughts on “Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin

  1. Karen K. says:

    Interesting! I’ve seen the Peacock room several times, it’s now at the Freer Gallery in Washington DC. I have family close by and whenever I went to visit them I would go see it (and now I live 30 minutes away but I can’t go now, sadly).

    I will have to look for this one — I love books about art and artists. I also have one called “I, James McNeil Whistler” by Lawrence Williams, from 1972 — I don’t know anything about it but I found it at the Friends of the Library sale and it was $1 so I bought it. Of course I haven’t read it yet. It does have some black & white reproductions, including his Nocturne in Black and Gold which I’ve seen at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Now I think I have to read this one!

  2. Café Society says:

    I wasn’t convinced enough by Pamplin’s style to want to read anything else by him, I’m afraid. I know there was a reason why I plodded on through this one and finished it, but I can’t remember what it was now. I do know that if there hadn’t been a good reason I probably wouldn’t have got to the end. For me it became a bit like wading through treacle. I’m glad you enjoyed it more than I did and I hope you do find some of his others at your taste.

    • Helen says:

      I wasn’t sure about his style at first but settled into it after a few chapters. Sorry you didn’t like it enough to want to read more.

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    I have not read this one but reading your review reminded me of another novel about an artist and the woman he painted: The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. You may have already read it. I liked it a lot because his model Emilie Floge was a strong character in her own right.

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