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Whistler, James Abbott McNeill [American, 1834-1903]


[ Biography | 19th Century Artists ]

Whistler, James Abbott McNeill (1834-1903). American-born painter and graphic artist, active mainly in England. He spent several of his childhood years in Russia (where his father had gone to work as a civil engineer) and was an inveterate traveller. His training as an artist began indirectly when, after his discharge from West Point Military Academy for ‘deficiency in chemistry', he learnt etching as a US navy cartographer. In 1855 he went to Paris, where he studied intermittently under Gleyre, made copies in the Louvre, acquired a lasting admiration for Velázquez, and became a devotee of the cult of the Japanese print and oriental art and decoration in general. Through his friend Fantin-Latour he met Courbet, Realism inspired much of his early work. The circles in which he moved can be gauged from Fantin-Latour's Homage to Delacroix, in which Whistler is portrayed alongside Baudelaire, Manet, and others. He settled in London in 1859, but often returned to France. His At the Piano (Taft Museum, Cincinnati, 1859) was well received at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1860 and he soon made a name for himself, not just because of his talent, but also on account of his flamboyant personality. He was famous for his wit and dandyism, and loved controversy. His life-style was lavish and he was often in debt. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Oscar Wilde were among his famous friends.

Whistler's art is in many respects the opposite to his often aggressive personality, being discreet and subtle, but the creed that lay behind it was radical. He believed that painting should exist for its own sake, not to convey literary or moral ideas, and he often gave his pictures musical titles to suggest an analogy with the abstract art of music: ‘Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works ‘‘arrangements'’ and ‘‘harmonies''.’ He was a laborious and self-critical worker, but this is belied by the flawless harmonies of tone and color he created in his paintings, which are mainly portraits and landscapes, particularly scenes of the Thames. No less original was his work as a decorative artist, notably in the Peacock Room (1876-77) for the London home of the Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland (now reconstructed in the Freer Gallery, Washington), where attenuated decorative patterning anticipated much in the Art Nouveau style of the 1890s.

In 1877 Ruskin denounced Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (Detroit Institute of Arts), accusing him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public's face', and Whistler sued him for libel. He won the action, but the awarding of only a farthing's damages with no costs was in effect a justification for Ruskin, and the expense of the trial led to Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879. His house was sold and he spent a year in Venice (1879-80), concentrating on the etchings — among the masterpieces of 19th-century graphic art — that helped to restore his fortunes when he returned to London. He made a happy marriage in 1888 to Beatrix Godwin, widow of the architect E.W. Godwin, with whom Whistler had collaborated, but she died only eight years later. In his fifties Whistler began to achieve honors and substantial success. His portrait of Thomas Carlyle was bought by the Corporation of Glasgow in 1891 for 1,000 guineas and soon afterwards his most famous work, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (1871), was bought by the French state (it is now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and he was made a member of the Légion d'Honneur.


  Whistler, James Abbott McNeill [American, 1834-1903]

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