James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American artist active during the American Gilded Age and based primarily in the United Kingdom. He was a prominent member of the New English Art Club in its early stages, elected in the 1880s.
Whistler is famous for his paintings of nocturne scenes, with their strong influence of Japanese art and design (which also influenced his portraiture works such as 'Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket'), his Thames and Venice etching series and The Peacock Room commission. His most famous painting, ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1’ (1871), commonly known as ‘Whistler's Mother’ is a revered and often parodied portrait of motherhood.
Whistler was averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting, and a leading proponent of the credo ‘art for art’s sake’. His signature for his paintings took the shape of a stylised butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail. The symbol combined both aspects of his personality: his art is marked by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative. He found a parallel between painting and music, and entitled many of his paintings ‘arrangements’, ‘harmonies’, and ‘nocturnes’, emphasising the primacy of tonal harmony. Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his theories and his friendships with other leading artists and writers.
Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834. He lived the first three years of his life in a modest house at 243 Worthen Street in Lowell. The house is now the Whistler House Museum of Art, a museum dedicated to him. He claimed St. Petersburg, Russia as his birthplace during the Ruskin trial: "I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell."
Whistler was a moody child prone to fits of temper and insolence, and he often drifted into periods of laziness after bouts of illness. His parents discovered that drawing often settled him down and helped focus his attention. In later years, he played up his mother's connection to the American South and its roots, and he presented himself as an impoverished Southern aristocrat, although it remains unclear to what extent he truly sympathised with the Southern cause during the American Civil War. He adopted his mother's maiden name after she died, using it as an additional middle name.
Beginning in 1842, his father was employed to work on a railroad in Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg to join his father a year later, the young Whistler took private art lessons, then enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Arts at age eleven. The young artist followed the traditional curriculum of drawing from plaster casts and occasional live models, revelled in the atmosphere of art talk with older peers, and pleased his parents with a first-class mark in anatomy. In 1844, he met the noted artist Sir William Allan, who came to Russia with a commission to paint a history of the life of Peter the Great. Whistler's mother noted in her diary, "the great artist remarked to me, 'Your little boy has uncommon genius, but do not urge him beyond his inclination.'"
In 1847–1848, his family spent some time in London with relatives, while his father stayed in Russia. Whistler's brother-in-law Francis Haden, a physician who was also an artist, spurred his interest in art and photography. Haden took Whistler to visit collectors and to lectures, and gave him a watercolour set with instruction. Whistler already was imagining an art career. He began to collect books on art and he studied other artists' techniques. When his portrait was painted by Sir William Boxall in 1848, the young Whistler exclaimed that the portrait was "very much like me and a very fine picture. Mr Boxall is a beautiful colourist ... It is a beautiful creamy surface and looks so rich."
After being thrown out of the United States Military Academy at West Point and subsequently working as draftsman mapping the entire U.S. coast for military and maritime purposes, Whistler travelled to Paris in 1855. He rented a studio in the Latin Quarter, and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. Soon he had a French girlfriend, a dressmaker named Héloise. He studied traditional art methods for a short time at the Ecole Impériale and at the atelier of Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre. The latter was a great advocate of the work of Ingres and impressed Whistler with two principles that he used for the rest of his career: line is more important than colour and that black is the fundamental colour of tonal harmony.
Twenty years later, the Impressionists would largely overthrow this philosophy, banning black and brown as "forbidden colours" and emphasizing colour over form. Whistler preferred self-study (including copying at the Louvre) and enjoying the café life. While letters from home reported his mother's efforts at economy, Whistler spent freely, sold little or nothing in his first year in Paris, and was in steady debt. To relieve the situation, he took to painting and selling copies he made at the Louvre and finally moved to cheaper quarters. As luck would have it, the arrival in Paris of George Lucas, another rich friend, helped stabilize Whistler's finances for a while. In spite of a financial respite, the winter of 1857 was a difficult one for Whistler. His poor health, made worse by excessive smoking and drinking, laid him low.
Conditions improved during the summer of 1858. Whistler recovered and travelled with fellow artist Ernest Delannoy through France and the Rhineland. He later produced a group of etchings known as ‘The French Set’ with the help of French master printer Auguste Delâtre. During that year, he painted his first self-portrait, ‘Portrait of Whistler with Hat’, a dark and thickly rendered work reminiscent of Rembrandt. But the event of greatest consequence that year was his friendship with Henri Fantin-Latour, whom he met at the Louvre. Through him, Whistler was introduced to the circle of Gustave Courbet, which included Carolus-Duran (later the teacher of John Singer Sargent, also a member of the New English Art Club) , Alphonse Legros, and Édouard Manet.
Also in this group was Charles Baudelaire, whose ideas and theories of ‘modern’ art influenced Whistler. Baudelaire challenged artists to scrutinize the brutality of life and nature and to portray it faithfully, avoiding the old themes of mythology and allegory. Théophile Gautier, one of the first to explore translation qualities among art and music, may have inspired Whistler to view art in musical terms.
Whistlers Career and Life in London
Reflecting the banner of realism of his adopted circle, Whistler painted his first exhibited work, La Mere Gerard in 1858. He followed it by painting ‘At the Piano’ in 1859 in London, which he adopted as his home, while also regularly visiting friends in France. ‘At the Piano’ is a portrait composed of his niece and her mother in their London music room, an effort which clearly displayed his talent and promise. A critic wrote, "[despite] a recklessly bold manner and sketchiness of the wildest and roughest kind, [it has] a genuine feeling for colour and a splendid power of composition and design, which evince a just appreciation of nature very rare amongst artists." The work is unsentimental and effectively contrasts the mother in black and the daughter in white, with other colours kept restrained in the manner advised by his teacher Gleyre. It was displayed at the Royal Academy the following year, and in many exhibits to come.
In a second painting executed in the same room, Whistler demonstrated his natural inclination toward innovation and novelty by fashioning a genre scene with unusual composition and foreshortening. It later was re-titled ‘Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room’. This painting also demonstrated Whistler's ongoing work pattern, especially with portraits: a quick start, major adjustments, a period of neglect, then a final flurry to the finish.
After a year in London, as a counterpoint to his 1858 French set, in 1860, he produced another set of etchings called ‘Thames Set’, as well as some early impressionistic work, including ‘The Thames in Ice’. At this stage, he was beginning to establish his technique of tonal harmony based on a limited, pre-determined palette.
In 1877, Whistler sued the critic John Ruskin for libel after the critic condemned his painting ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket’. Whistler exhibited the work in the Grosvenor Gallery, an alternative to the Royal Academy exhibition, alongside works by Edward Burne-Jones and other artists. Ruskin, who had been a champion of the Pre-Raphaelites and J. M. W. Turner, reviewed Whistler's work in his publication Fors Clavigera on July 2, 1877. Ruskin praised Burne-Jones, while he attacked Whistler:
For Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay [founder of the Grosvenor Gallery] ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.
Whistler, seeing the attack in the newspaper, replied to his friend George Boughton, "It is the most debased style of criticism I have had thrown at me yet." He then went to his solicitor and drew up a writ for libel which was served to Ruskin. Whistler hoped to recover £1,000 plus the costs of the action. The case came to trial the following year after delays caused by Ruskin's bouts of mental illness, while Whistler's financial condition continued to deteriorate. It was heard in the Exchequer Division of the High Court on November 25 and 26 of 1878 before Baron Huddleston and a special jury.
Whistler had counted on many artists to take his side as witnesses, but they refused, fearing damage to their reputations. The other witnesses for him were unconvincing and the jury's own reaction to the work was derisive. With Ruskin's witnesses more impressive, including Edward Burne-Jones, and with Ruskin absent for medical reasons, Whistler's counterattack was ineffective. Nonetheless, the jury reached a verdict in favour of Whistler, but awarded a mere farthing in nominal damages, and the court costs were split. The cost of the case, together with huge debts from building his residence (‘The White House’ in Tite Street, Chelsea, designed with E. W. Godwin, 1877–8), bankrupted him by May 1879, resulting in an auction of his work, collections, and house. Stansky notes the irony that the Fine Art Society of London, which had organized a collection to pay for Ruskin's legal costs, supported him in etching ‘The Stones of Venice’ (and in exhibiting the series in 1883), which helped recoup Whistler's costs.
Whistler published his account of the trial in the pamphlet Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics, included in his later ‘The Gentle Art of Making Enemies’ (1890), in December 1878, soon after the trial. Whistler's grand hope that the publicity of the trial would rescue his career was dashed as he lost rather than gained popularity among patrons because of it. Among his creditors was Leyland, who oversaw the sale of Whistler's possessions. Whistler made various caricatures of his former patron, including a biting satirical painting called The Gold Scab, just after Whistler declared bankruptcy. Whistler always blamed Leyland for his financial downfall.
After the trial, Whistler received a commission to do twelve etchings in Venice. He eagerly accepted the assignment, and arrived in the city with girlfriend Maud, taking rooms in a dilapidated palazzo they shared with other artists, including John Singer Sargent. Although homesick for London, he adapted to Venice and set about discovering its character. He did his best to distract himself from the gloom of his financial affairs and the pending sale of all his goods at Sotheby's. He was a regular guest at parties at the American consulate, and with his usual wit, enchanted the guests with verbal flourishes such as "the artist's only positive virtue is idleness—and there are so few who are gifted at it.
His new friends reported, on the contrary, that Whistler rose early and put in a full day of effort. He wrote to a friend, "I have learned to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived, and which, if I bring back with me as I propose, will far more than compensate for all annoyances delays & vexations of spirit." The three-month assignment stretched to fourteen months. During this exceptionally productive period, Whistler finished over fifty etchings, several nocturnes, some watercolours, and over 100 pastels—illustrating both the moods of Venice and its fine architectural details. Furthermore, Whistler influenced the American art community in Venice, especially Frank Duveneck (and Duveneck's 'boys') and Robert Blum who emulated Whistler's vision of city and later spread his methods and influence back to America.
Back in London, the pastels sold particularly well and he quipped, "They are not as good as I supposed. They are selling!" He was actively engaged in exhibiting his other work but with limited success. Though still struggling financially, however, he was heartened by the attention and admiration he received from the younger generation of English and American painters who made him their idol and eagerly adopted the title "pupil of Whistler". Many of them returned to America and spread tales of Whistler's provocative egotism, sharp wit, and aesthetic pronouncements—establishing the legend of Whistler, much to his great satisfaction.
Whistler published his first book, ‘Ten O'Clock Lecture’ in 1885, a major expression of his belief in ‘art for art's sake. At the time, the opposing Victorian notion reigned, namely, that art, and indeed much human activity, had a moral or social function. To Whistler, however, art was its own end and the artist's responsibility was not to society, but to himself, to interpret through art, and to neither reproduce nor moralize what he saw. Furthermore, he stated, "Nature is very rarely right", and must be improved upon by the artist, with his own vision.
Though differing with Whistler on several points, including his insistence that poetry was a higher form of art than painting, Oscar Wilde was generous in his praise and hailed the lecture a masterpiece: "not merely for its clever satire and amusing jests ... but for the pure and perfect beauty of many of its passages ... for that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler himself entirely concurs." Whistler, however, thought himself mocked by Oscar Wilde, and from then on, public sparring ensued leading to a total breakdown of their friendship, precipitated by a report written by Herbert Vivian. Later, Wilde struck at Whistler again, basing the murdered artist in his novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ after Whistler. In January 1881, Anna Whistler died. In his mother's honour, thereafter, he publicly adopted her maiden name McNeill as a middle name.
Whistler joined the Society of British Artists in 1884, and on June 1, 1886, he was elected president. The following year, during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, Whistler presented to the Queen, on the Society's behalf, an elaborate album including a lengthy written address and illustrations that he made. Queen Victoria so admired ‘the beautiful and artistic illumination’ that she decreed henceforth, ‘that the Society should be called Royal.’ This achievement was widely appreciated by the members, but soon it was overshadowed by the dispute that inevitably arose with the Royal Academy of Arts. Whistler proposed that members of the Royal Society should withdraw from the Royal Academy. This ignited a feud within the membership ranks that overshadowed all other society business. In May 1888, nine members wrote to Whistler to demand his resignation. At the annual meeting on June 4, he was defeated for re-election by a vote of 18–19, with nine abstentions. Whistler and twenty-five supporters resigned, while the anti-Whistler majority (in his view) was successful in purging him for his ‘eccentricities’ and ‘non-English’ background.
With his relationship with Maud unraveling, Whistler suddenly proposed to and married Beatrice Godwin (also called 'Beatrix' or 'Trixie'), a former pupil and the widow of his architect Edward William Godwin. Through his friendship with Godwin, Whistler had become close to Beatrice, whom Whistler painted in the full-length portrait titled ‘Harmony in Red: Lamplight’. By the summer of 1888, Whistler and Beatrice appeared in public as a couple. At a dinner, Louise Jopling and Henry Labouchère insisted that they should be married before the end of the week.
The marriage ceremony was arranged; as a member of parliament, Labouchère arranged for the Chaplain to the House of Commons to marry the couple. No publicity was given to the ceremony to avoid the possibility of a furious Maud Franklin interrupting the marriage ceremony. The marriage took place on August 11, 1888, with the ceremony attended by a reporter from the Pall Mall Gazette, so that the event receive publicity. The couple left soon after for Paris, to avoid any risk of a scene with Maud.
In 1890, he met Charles Lang Freer, who became a valuable patron in America, and ultimately, his most important collector. Around this time, in addition to portraiture, Whistler experimented with early colour photography and with lithography, creating a series featuring London architecture and the human figure, mostly female nudes. He contributed the first three of his Songs of Stone lithographs to The Whirlwind a Neo-Jacobite magazine published by his friend Herbert Vivian. Whistler had met Vivian in the late 1880s when both were members of the Order of the White Rose, the first of the Neo-Jacobite societies. In 1891, with help from his close friend Stéphane Mallarmé, Whistler's Mother was purchased by the French government for 4,000 francs. This was much less than what an American collector might have paid, but that would not have been so prestigious by Whistler's reckoning.
After an indifferent reception to his solo show in London, featuring mostly his nocturnes, Whistler abruptly decided he had had enough of London. He and Trixie moved to Paris in 1892. He felt welcomed by Monet, Auguste Rodin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and by Stéphane Mallarmé, and he set himself up a large studio. He was at the top of his career when it was discovered that Trixie had cancer. They returned to London in February 1896, taking rooms at the Savoy Hotel while they sought medical treatment. He made drawings on lithographic transfer paper of the view of the River Thames, from the hotel window or balcony, as he sat with her. She died a few months later.
Charles Freer introduced Whistler to his friend and fellow businessman, Richard Albert Canfield, in 1899 who became a personal friend and patron of Whistler's. Canfield owned a number of fashionable gambling houses in New York, Rhode Island, Saratoga Springs and Newport, and was also a man of culture with refined tastes in art. Canfield owned early American and Chippendale furniture, tapestries, Chinese porcelain and Barye bronzes. Canfield soon possessed the second largest and most important Whistler collection in the world prior to his death in 1914. A few months before his death, Canfield sold his collection of etchings, lithographs, drawings and paintings by Whistler to the American art dealer Roland F. Knoedler for $300,000. Three of Canfield's Whistler paintings hang in the Frick Museum in New York City. Canfield came to own numerous paintings by Whistler. In May 1901 Canfield commissioned a portrait from Whistler. He started to pose for Portrait of Richard A. Canfield in March 1902. According to Alexander Gardiner, Canfield returned to Europe to sit for Whistler at the New Year in 1903, and sat every day until May 16, 1903. However, Whistler was ill and frail at this time and the work was his last completed portrait. The deceptive air of respectability that the portrait gave Canfield caused Whistler to call it 'His Reverence'. The two men were in correspondence from 1901 until Whistler's death.
In the final seven years of his life, Whistler did some minimalist seascapes in watercolour and a final self-portrait in oil. He corresponded with his many friends and colleagues. Whistler founded an art school in 1898, but his poor health and infrequent appearances led to its closure in 1901. He died in London on July 17, 1903, six days after his 69th birthday. He is buried in Chiswick Old Cemetery in west London.
Whistler was the subject of a 1908 biography by his friends, the husband and wife team of Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, printmaker and art critic respectively. The Pennells' vast collection of Whistler material was bequeathed to the Library of Congress. The artist's entire estate was left to his sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip. She spent the rest of her life defending his reputation and managing his art and effects, much of which eventually was donated to Glasgow University.
Death of James McNeill Whistler, Saturday 18 July 1903
We deeply regret to announce the death of Mr. James McNeil Whistler, the eminent artist, at his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, yesterday. The death of James McNeil Whistler removes from the list of the distinguished living an artist of rare gifts and a strange and intricate personality.
It is difficult to regard as belonging to the past a contemporary figure so vivid, so full of surprises, so perverse, and so brilliant; hard to have to begin now to asses that estimate of the man and his work which will be made by posterity. Yet it must be recognised that the elements which make a present estimate difficult will for future generations render the painter's portrait a specially living one among those of his contemporaries.
It is a portrait which he himself took great pains to paint and to render somewhat difficult and obscure for those who were in any degree unsympathetic towards him. The gentle art of making enemies was by him so assiduously practised that from a pastime it became something not far short of a passion; and if to make one's self misunderstood be the right object for the opening of a controversy, it may be said that Whistler conducted those in which he was concerned to a thoroughly successful conclusion. Perhaps by these ingenious devices, the painter secured a portrait of himself which at a right distance, as viewed by posterity, will have its charm, which in any case cannot fail to be interesting. [Source: https://www.theguardian.com/century/1899-1909/Story/0,,126343,00.html]
This is an edited version of Whistler's Wikipedia biography that can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Abbott_McNeill_Whistler
You can also view over 100 of his artworks on his ArtUK website page: https://artuk.org/discover/artists/whistler-james-abbott-mcneill-18341903#
Featured image: ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1’ (1871), commonly known as ‘Whistler's Mother’ (Musée d’Orsay, Public Domain)
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