Oscar Wilde? James McNeill Whistler? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I would like to learn more about a famous anecdote involving James McNeill Whistler, the painter who is known for his iconic portrait of his mother. Apparently, Whistler was able to trump Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest wits of the nineteenth century who was occasionally accused of appropriating the clever expressions spoken by others. Once at a party Whistler made a humorous remark and the following statements were exchanged:
Oscar Wilde: I wish I had said that.
James McNeill Whistler: You will, Oscar, you will.
The accounts of this story I have read were written after the death of Oscar Wilde in 1900. Do earlier reports exist? Also, what was the quip that inspired Wilde’s compliment?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI was published in January 1886 in “The Sunday Herald” of Boston, Massachusetts. James McNeill Whistler was planning to visit the United States and conduct a lecture tour. William M. Chase, a friend of Whistler’s, was asked about the content of the forthcoming lectures and responded with caustic words about Oscar Wilde. The article included a version of the anecdote. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
“Was his talk on art similar in any respect to Mr. Wilde’s?”
“Well, as Oscar Wilde cribbed from Whistler almost everything he said in his lecture here about art that was worth saying, there may be some remote resemblance between the two lectures as to their matter, but that is certainly all.”
Whistler pricked this bubble of Wilde very neatly and epigrammatically at a Paris salon last season presided over by a well known and popular lady. Whistler had been notably witty during the evening and finally made a bon mot more than usually pointed and happy that convulsed his listeners.
Wilde, who was present, approved Mr. Whistler’s brightness, and wondered why he had not thought of the witticism himself. ‘You will,’ promptly replied Whistler, ‘you will.’ This lightning comment on Mr. Wilde’s wonderful ability to think of other people’s bright things and to repeat them as his own had, you may imagine, an immediate and most discomforting effect on Mr. Wilde.
Thanks to top researcher Stephen Goranson who located the above citation.
In May 1886 a version of the Wilde and Whistler anecdote was printed in a Wichita, Kansas newspaper. This instance was very similar to one given in “The Sunday Herald” above. The text was extracted from the longer article and slightly condensed. 2
The next earliest evidence known to QI was printed in the “Jamestown Weekly Alert” of the Dakota Territory in February 1887. The same story was reprinted in “Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly” in May 1887: 3 4
A Boston artist tells this story of Whistler and Oscar Wilde, who has the reputation of borrowing Whistler’s bright speeches. Having heard the artist say an unusually good thing Oscar exclaimed, deploringly: “I wish I could have said that.” “Oh,” replied Whistler derisively, “but you know you will say it.”
This short description did not specify the comment initially made by Whistler, and most early descriptions were similarly incomplete. The precise phrasing of Whistler’s rejoinder was variable. Intriguing versions of the tale were published years later; in 1913 Douglas Sladen published an instance and claimed that he was present when the words were spoken. Sladen stated that the witticism that inspired Wilde’s initial compliment was spoken by a “pretty woman”. In 1946 a biographer named Hesketh Pearson presented another interesting example of the anecdote. The details of these cites are given further below.
Here are selected citations in chronological order.
- 1886 January 24, The Sunday Herald (Boston Herald), J. M’Neill Whistler: The London Artist Coming to America to Lecture, Quote Page 14, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (The spelling “epigramatically” in the original text was replaced by “epigrammatically”) (America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex, NewsBank) ↩
- 1886 May 12, Wichita Daily Eagle, Wit and Humor: Mr. Whistler and Oscar Wilde, (Acknowledgement to The Argonaut), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Wichita, Kansas. (Chronicling America) ↩
- 1887 February 10, Jamestown Weekly Alert, Whistler and Wilde, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Jamestown, Dakota Territory (later North Dakota) (Chronicling America) ↩
- May 1887, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Volume 23, Entertaining Column, Quote Page 639, Column 2, Frank Leslie’s Publishing House, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩