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Celebrity Doppelgängers: Whistler Edition

The Department of Prints and Drawings is always an exciting place when an exhibition is being installed. The physical and mental demands of making sure that the art is displayed to perfection, while meeting relentless deadlines is an intense time for the staff. Despite this tension, there is a moment of breathtaking awe once a show is ready to open. It never fails. And so it is also for the newly opened Whistler and Roussel: Linked Visions. The exhibition illustrates the decade-long professional collaboration of James McNeill Whistler and Theodore Roussel and includes 175 etchings, lithographs, drawings, and paintings. The exhibition is also complemented by works from the artists' networks, including the painting above. When I saw images of Whistler, I found myself saying out loud, “I feel like I know this guy! There is something so familiar about him!” Sure, he is quite fashionable for his time, possessing that je ne sais quoi, but the personality is one I felt I knew intimately. I could hear him cracking wise while he struck a bold pose, being a show-off, yet the glint in his eye told me he knows he is a bit ridiculous. “I know this guy! But how?!” It finally came to me when standing in front of the Walter Greaves portrait of the artist. . . he is Frank Zappa!

What a relief to finally understand my reaction to Whistler’s likeness. “Frank Zappa is Whistler’s doppelgänger!” I declared it to all who would listen, with great satisfaction. Alas, I was not alone in finding Whistler familiar. A fellow staff member overheard a museum visitor saying, “Who does Whistler remind me of? Hmmm… I think it’s Johnny Depp!” Maybe, although I would argue Depp is missing the edginess of Whistler and Zappa. One of our Conservation Fellows brought some friends to see the exhibition, and offered me full validation when unsolicited, one of the friends, seeing Whistler’s portrait exclaimed, “He looks like Frank Zappa!” Another visitor, with a French accent, was heard saying of Roussel’s portrait, “He looks like Jeremy Irons.”

The familiar appeal of these two gentlemen is apparently global and this celebrity "sighting" has reignited a trend in our department, with previous sightings including Bill Murray and Paul Giamatti. So the pursuit of more doppelgängers is now in full swing. Happy hunting, and be sure to share what you snag! —Judith Broggi, Department Coordinator of Prints and Drawings Image Credit: Walter Greaves. James McNeill Whistler, 1869. A.A. Munger Collection.