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Artists James Abbott McNeill Whistler
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James Abbott McNeill Whistler

American Painter

Movements: Aesthetic Art, Post-Impressionism, Realism

Born: July 11, 1834 - Lowell, Massachusetts

Died: July 17, 1903 - London, England

James Abbott McNeill Whistler Timeline

Quotes

"An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision."
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
"An artist's career always begins tomorrow."
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
"A picture is finished when all trace of the means used to bring about the end has disappeared."
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
"Nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick and choose...that the result may be beautiful - as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony..."
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
"Art should be independent of all clap-trap--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.'"
James Abbott McNeill Whistler

"To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano."

James Abbott McNeill Whistler Signature

Synopsis

One of the most significant figures in American art and a forerunner of the Post-Impressionist movement, James Abbott McNeill Whistler is celebrated for his innovative painting style and eccentric personality. He was bold and self-assured, and quickly developed a reputation for his verbal and legal retaliations against art critics, dealers, and artists who insulted his work. His paintings, etchings, and pastels epitomize the modern penchant for creating "art for art's sake," an axiom celebrated by Whistler and others in the Aesthetic movement. They also represent one of the earliest shifts from traditional representational art to abstraction that is at the heart of much of modern art.

Key Ideas

Whistler abandoned Courbet's realism and developed his own signature style in which, much like Édouard Manet at the time, he began exploring the possibilities and limitations of paint. By limiting his color palette and tonal contrast while skewing perspective, Whistler showcased a new compositional approach that emphasized the flat, abstract quality of the painting.
Whistler titled (or re-titled) his works using terms such as "symphony," "arrangement," and "nocturne" to suggest a correlation between musical notes and variations in color tone. These more abstract titles served to focus the viewer's attention on the artist's manipulation of paint, rather than the actual subject matter depicted.
Whistler was a devoted advocate of the Aesthetic movement in his promotion of the "art for art's sake" mentality through such writings as The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1892), and he also helped cultivate new concepts of beauty by using unconventional models reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite figures and, most notably, by incorporating the Japanese aesthetic into his imaginative compositions.
Japanese art deeply fascinated many early modern artists living in Paris. But because Whistler was among the first American artists working in England to incorporate delicate oriental fabric patterns and props into his work, he is credited with spearheading what has been called the Anglo-Japanese style in fine art. Works such The Peacock Room were integral to introducing the Japanese aesthetic to England and America.
Just as Courbet's Pavilion of Realism questioned the authority of the French Salon, Whistler's libel suit against John Ruskin as well as other defensive measures against art critics who did not share his vision inspired modern artists, such as the Impressionists, to look beyond traditional art institutions when seeking exhibition space or support for their work.

Most Important Art

James Abbott McNeill Whistler Famous Art

Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl (1862)

Originally titled The White Girl, this painting depicts a young woman, Whistler's mistress and model Joanna Hiffernan, with long, flowing red hair and wearing a simple white cambric dress. She stands on a similarly colored bearskin rug as she grasps a white flower at her side, her distant gaze lending her a doll-like quality. Indeed, Whistler treats her as a toy or pawn of sorts in that that artist is here less concerned with the accuracy of portraiture as he is with using the canvas as a means of exploring tonal variations. That Whistler later re-titled the painting Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl to draw attention to the varying white tones of the work and suggest a comparison between them and music notes, clarifies this objective.

The painting bears the distinction of being the first work to truly achieve fame for the artist. Rejected by London's Royal Academy and the French Academy's Salon for its inappropriate subject matter that seemed to suggest the loss of innocence, the painting appeared in the Salon des Refuses in 1863, where it was greatly admired by Édouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, and Charles Baudelaire, among others. Symphony in White denotes Whistler's shift from mimicking Courbet's realism to developing his own signature abstract style in which he focused on using subtle color variations, texture, and the careful balancing of forms or shapes to convey a mood that would appeal to the senses.
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James Abbott McNeill Whistler Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood and Education

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was the oldest son of engineer George Washington Whistler and his devoutly Episcopalian second wife Anna McNeill. As a child Whistler was temperamental and prone to mood swings. His parents quickly discovered that drawing soothed him and so they encouraged his artistic inclinations. When in 1842 Whistler's father was recruited by Tsar Nicholas I to design a railroad, James moved with his father, mother, and younger brother William (later a surgeon for the Confederate army) to St. Petersburg in Russia. There, the precocious youth insisted on showing his drawings to Sir William Allan, a Scottish painter hired by the Tsar to create a portrait of Peter the Great. Allan encouraged the youth to cultivate his talents and in 1845, at age 11, Whistler was enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. This, Whistler's first formal art instruction, ended just four years later when his father died from cholera and the family returned to the United States, settling in Pomfret, Connecticut.

Whistler's mother strove to keep her children morally grounded and to give them every opportunity, despite their precarious financial situation. She sent James to Christ Church Hall School and read Bible verses to him every morning in the hope that he would pursue a career as a minister. But her son would not be deterred from pursuing art. Whistler enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1852, where he studied drawing under Robert W. Weir, but his aversion to authority and poor academic performance led to his expulsion shortly thereafter. Map-making, a skill developed at West Point, helped Whistler acquire his first job upon leaving school as a topographical draftsman for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. During his brief two-month tenure, the artist learned about the etching process, a skill that he would later use to create 490 etchings, drypoints, and mezzotints. Intent on pursuing art as a profession, Whistler left for Europe in 1855. He would never return to the United States.

Early Training

James Abbott McNeill Whistler Biography

Paris provided a solid training ground for Whistler in more ways than one, the confident youth was briefly a student at the Ecole Imperiale before attending the atelier of Swiss painter Charles Gabriel Gleyre, later teacher to Impressionists Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Finding himself far removed from his mother's religious influence, the 21-year-old quickly fell into the manner of a bohemian artist. He adopted the casual air of the carefully coiffed flâneur, idly strolling along Parisian boulevards and taking in every detail of his urban surroundings. "Jimmy," as he was known to friends, spent his funds lavishly on clothes, tobacco, food, drink, and art supplies. He was often reduced to pawning possessions or relying on the generosity of friends to cover his mounting debt. An admirer of seventeenth-century Dutch and Spanish masters, Whistler copied their works on view in the Louvre and sold them to help alleviate his financial burden.

Whistler's true artistic development began in 1858 when he became friends with French painter Henri Fantin-Latour and through him met Realist painters Gustave Courbet, Alphonse Legros, and Édouard Manet, as well as the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire who is credited with defining the term "modernity" as the fleetingness of the urban experience. Whistler's painting style at this early juncture was deeply influenced by Courbet's realism, as seen in the earthy colors and finely textured surfaces of At the Piano (1859). Created the same year the artist relocated to London, At the Piano depicts a mother and child, the artist's half-sister and niece, in the music room of their London home. The painting was well received when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860. And yet within a few years, Whistler abandoned this Realist perspective in favor of a whimsical style more closely aligned with Aestheticism in terms of its decorative quality. His incorporation of oriental props and adherence to Japanese aesthetic principles further separated him from the Realists, while catapulting him to new heights within the Aesthetic movement.

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler Biography Continues

Mature Period

James Abbott McNeill Whistler Photo

Whistler settled permanently in London in 1859, but visited and exhibited his work in continental Europe, particularly France, frequently, though not always with the success he sought. For example, the portrait of his mistress Joanna Hiffernan titled Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) was rejected by both the Royal Academy in London and the French Salon. The rejected painting instead appeared under the title The White Girl in the Salon des Refusés in 1863, along with work by other avant-garde artists, including Édouard Manet. Though derided by more conservative viewers at the time, The White Girl, like Manet's Le dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863), is now considered an important early example of modern art. It is the first of many works by Whistler that relied on color to explore spatial and formal relationships in a visually stimulating manner consistent with the Aesthetic belief in "art for art's sake."

The painter was as adventurous in his travels as he was with a brush. In 1866 Whistler unexpectedly set sail for Valparaiso, Chile. Some scholars have speculated that he was sympathetic to the Chilean army then at war with Spain and ventured there to support the Chilean war effort. Regardless of his reason for making the trip, once there Whistler painted three seascapes that marked a shift in his artistic repertoire. These evening harbor scenes initially titled "moonlights" and later changed to "nocturnes," inspired similarly titled impressionist views of the Thames River and Cremorne Gardens created upon the artist's return to London.

Whistler became aware of Impressionism thanks to fellow artists Claude Monet and Camille Pissaro, who in 1870 had temporarily relocated to London to avoid the Franco-Prussian War. During these years, Whistler created his nocturnes by applying thin layers of paint peppered with flecks of bright color to suggest distant lights or ships. Japanese aesthetic principles, such as simplified forms and expressive lines, evident in these paintings, were a revelation for English Aesthetic artists unfamiliar with Asian prints and porcelain collected by Whistler and his French contemporaries. Similar to his portraits and consistent with French Impressionist principles, Whistler's nocturnes also show his modernist preoccupation with creating an overall effect at the expense of specific details and accurate representation. In fact Edgar Degas invited Whistler to join the Impressionist's first group exhibition in 1874, but Whistler declined.

Although Whistler painted maritime nocturnes for the next 10 years, his production of portraits did not wane. It was during this period that he created his best-known work, a portrait of his mother titled Arrangement in Gray and Black or Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1871). The painting brought him great success, but the arrival of his mother in 1864 had put a severe crimp in the carefree life he had been living in London. When he learned of her plans to stay with him, the twenty-nine year old Whistler was forced to straighten-up his life, which included moving his then mistress Joanna Hiffernan out of his house and into an apartment.

As Whistler grew in recognition as an artist, so too did his reputation as a witty, opinionated man. He once bested Oscar Wilde at a party by calling attention to the author's habit of plagiarizing clever phrases (including some of Whistler's own). But the artist also suffered from volatile mood swings and a considerable temper, maladies he had been grappling with since childhood. Indeed it was anger and jealousy that caused Whistler's relationship with his mistress Joanna Hiffernan to fall apart after she posed nude for his friend Gustave Courbet.

Whistler's dominant personality at times adversely affected his career as an artist. Now celebrated as the greatest example of Anglo-Japanese artistic fusion and the most significant contribution to Aesthetic interior design, Whistler's Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77) caused considerable strife between the artist and his patron Frederick Leyland. Whistler was an avid collector of Japanese prints and porcelain. So when Leyland asked him to make some minor changes to his dining room designed to showcase his own collection of porcelain, Whistler eagerly accepted. The artist's modifications, however, proved to be more extensive than expected and a payment dispute ensued.

Whistler also argued with art critics. By way of explaining his approach to painting, he developed his own theory of art that he described in 1873 as "the science of color and 'picture pattern'." Upset by what he viewed as an attack on Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874) in the form of a poor review by John Ruskin, Whistler sued the art critic for libel. Although the artist won, the judge's award of a single farthing, the equivalent of mere pennies, made a strong statement about the value the court placed on the case. Whistler's need to pay his expensive court costs forced him into financial ruin.

Late Period

James Abbott McNeill Whistler Portrait

In 1879 a bankrupt Whistler was forced out of his London home. He and his new mistress, Maud Franklin, traveled to Venice where he fulfilled a commission from the Fine Art Society to create a series of etchings. During his fourteen-month sojourn, Whistler also created many pastel and watercolor paintings along with more than fifty etchings of scenes from Venice. His etchings of the Italian city were well received when exhibited in London in 1880 and 1883 and demand developed for his pastels.

During the later years of his life he continued to paint portraits, experimented with color photography and lithographs, and published two books; Ten O'clock Lecture (1885) and The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890). Ever cognizant of his public persona, Whistler worked hard to cultivate his image as a successful artist. He could often be seen wearing a monocle, bamboo walking stick in hand, sporting a single white forelock in his otherwise brown hair, a distinction friends attributed to his "wickedness." Always striving for control, he was known to advise women what to wear to his exhibitions so that their outfits would not clash with the colors in his works. By the 1890s, Whistler had also created his own unique signature: a butterfly formed from his initials with a stinger for a tail - an allusion, perhaps, to his delicate touch and sharp tongue.

In 1888 Whistler married his former pupil and friend Beatrix Godwin. A reputable woman, her connections helped him secure more commissions for work. The couple eventually moved to Paris where Whistler established a studio and had a period of productive output before suffering the loss of his wife to cancer in 1896. Later, Whistler founded an art school but his failing health made the project unmanageable. The school closed in 1901, just two years before Whistler's death in 1903.


Legacy

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, like Courbet, adopted an artistic persona and staunchly defended his work in a manner that would inspire later generations of artists to challenge art authorities. Although his painting style was too radical for many Victorians, by the time of his death the artist had been credited with introducing modern French painting to England, as noted in London's Daily Chronicle: "It is twenty-five years since the famous case, 'Whistler versus Ruskin,' was tried. In the history of art it might be two hundred years, so completely has the point of view of the critics and the public changed, so completely has the brilliant genius of the man whom Ruskin called a 'coxcomb' been vindicated."

The influence of Whistler's work is most apparent in the paintings of his American contemporaries and later generations of modern artists. John Singer Sargent, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Albert Herter are among other American painters who admired and at times imitated Whistler's approach to color and even the arrangement of forms within his pictures. The artist's Nocturnes marked the beginning of art's movement toward abstraction, which would culminate in the gestural action paintings of Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. By envisioning and titling his works in abstract musical terms, Whistler helped spearhead a new modern approach to painting in which the medium itself is the subject, not the sitter or landscape pictured.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Interactive chart with James Abbott McNeill Whistler's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Gustave CourbetGustave Courbet
Édouard ManetÉdouard Manet
Diego VelazquezDiego Velazquez

Friends

Charles BaudelaireCharles Baudelaire
Theophile GautierTheophile Gautier

Movements

Aesthetic ArtAesthetic Art
ImpressionismImpressionism
The Pre-RaphaelitesThe Pre-Raphaelites
Art NouveauArt Nouveau
RealismRealism
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Years Worked: 1854 - 1903

Artists

Robert BlumRobert Blum
Frank DuveneckFrank Duveneck

Friends

Stéphane MallarméStéphane Mallarmé
John RuskinJohn Ruskin

Movements

Aesthetic ArtAesthetic Art
Art NouveauArt Nouveau
Post-ImpressionismPost-Impressionism
RealismRealism

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised by Sandy McCain

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
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Edited and revised by Sandy McCain
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Useful Resources on James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Videos

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The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth

By Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval

Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake Recomended resource

By Daniel E. Sutherland

Whistler: A Biography Recomended resource

By Stanley Weintraub

More Interesting Books about James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Beautiful rebels: the daring art of the aesthetic movement

The Guardian
March 28, 2011

Birds of a Feather: Whistler's Peacock Room Recomended resource

The New Yorker
April 18, 2011

Mom's Home: The mysteries of "Whistler's Mother" Recomended resource

The New Yorker
August 31, 2015

Why Was Whistler's Mom Such a Grump?

The Wall Street Journal
July 2, 2015

More Interesting Articles about James Abbott McNeill Whistler
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