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James Abbott McNeill Whistler

On Display at: Carnegie Museum of Art

American Artist


James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 14, 1834 – July 17, 1903) was an American-born, British-based painter and etcher. Averse to sentimentality in painting, he was a leading proponent of the credo "art for art's sake". He took to signing his paintings with a stylized butterfly, possessing a long stinger for a tail.[1]

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 14, 1834 – July 17, 1903) was an American-born, British-based painter and etcher. Averse to sentimentality in painting, he was a leading proponent of the credo "art for art's sake". He took to signing his paintings with a stylized butterfly, possessing a long stinger for a tail.[1] The symbol was apt, for Whistler's art was characterized by a subtle delicacy, in contrast to his combative public persona. Finding a parallel between painting and music, Whistler titled many of his works 'harmonies' and 'arrangements'.

Early life

Whistler was born to George Washington Whistler, a prominent engineer, and Anna Matilda McNeill in Lowell, Massachusetts. Beginning in 1842 his father was employed to work on the railroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg, the young Whistler enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts and also learned French. At the Ruskin trial (see below), Whistler claimed Russia as his birthplace: "I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell," he declared. After the death of his father in 1849, James Whistler and his mother moved back to her hometown of Pomfret, Connecticut.

He attended local school and then transferred to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father had once taught drawing. His departure from West Point seems to have been due to a failure in a chemistry exam; as he himself put it later: "If silicon were a gas, I would have been a general one day."[2] In European society, he later presented himself as an impoverished Southern aristocrat, although to what extent he truly sympathized with the Southern cause during the American Civil War remains unclear.


Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother (1871), popularly known as Whistler's Mother

Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother (1871), popularly known as Whistler's Mother



Whistler is best known for the nearly monochromatic full-length figure titled Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, but usually referred to as Whistler's Mother. The painting was purchased by the French government and is housed in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Whistler's painting The White Girl (1862) caused controversy when exhibited in London and, later, at the Salon des Refusés in Paris. The painting epitomizes his theory that art should essentially be concerned with the beautiful arrangement of colors in harmony, not with the accurate portrayal of the natural world.

The Peacock Room

Detail of the Peacock Room

Detail of the Peacock Room

In the 1870s Whistler painted full length portraits of F.R. Leyland and his wife Elinor. Leyland subsequently commissioned the artist to decorate his dining room; the result was Whistler's Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, now in the Freer Gallery of Art. The room was designed and painted in a rich and unified palette of brilliant blue-greens with over-glazing and metallic leaf, and is considered a high example of the Anglo-Japanese style. The painting was inspired by the blue and white china copied in watercolor for Sir Henry Thompson's catalogue, and from the porcelain both he and Leyland collected.

Artist and patron quarreled so violently over the room and the proper compensation for the work that their relationship was terminated. At one point, Whistler gained access to Leyland's home and painted two fighting peacocks meant to represent the artist and his patron; one holds a paint brush and the other holds a bag of money. The entire room was later purchased by the American industrialist and aesthete Charles Lang Freer, and installed in his collection. The published communications between Freer and Whistler reveal how Whistler's interest in those collecting his work in his native country (the United States) evolved over many decades.[citation needed] The Peacock Room now resides in the Smithsonian Museum's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Ruskin trial

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 that year alongside Edward Burne-Jones and others, and was reviewed by Ruskin in his publication Fors Clavigera on the July 2nd, 1877. Ruskin praised Burne-Jones, whilst he attacked Whistler:

For Mr. 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 willful 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.

The case came to trial the following year and was heard at the Queen's Bench of the High Court from November 25th to 26th 1878. The lawyer for John Ruskin, Attorney General Sir John Holker, cross examined Whistler;

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874), Detroit Institute of Arts collection

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874), Detroit Institute of Arts collection

Holker: "What is the subject of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket?"
Whistler: "It is a night piece and represents the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens."
Holker: "Not a view of Cremorne?"
Whistler: "If it were A View of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement. That is why I call it a nocturne...."
Holker: "Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?"
Whistler: "Oh, I 'knock one off' possibly in a couple of days - one day to do the work and another to finish it..." [the painting measures 24 3/4 x 18 3/8 inches]
Holker: "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?"
Whistler: "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."

Though suing for one thousand pounds plus costs, Whistler won a mere farthing in nominal damages. 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 despite his despairing commercial ventures[4], resulting in an auction of his work, collections and house. Stansky[5] 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) to recoup himself. He published his account of the trial in the pamphlet Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics[6] in December 1878, soon after the trial.

After the Ruskin trial, everything he mentioned or wrote about his work, and especially everything he told his biographers was done in a way in which he could dissociate himself from the English school of painting. His main purpose was to lose any relations he had with the couple of enemies he had made among the Royal Academicians, and the artists who he had been close to during the 1860s. Despite his attempts to give the notion that he did not belong to any school, he is without a doubt one of the few Victorian painters who is known for revitalizing the 'grand manner' of British painting.

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

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


Other relationships

Etching of Whistler's beloved, Joanna Hiffernan (c.1860)

Etching of Whistler's beloved, Joanna Hiffernan (c.1860)

Friendly with various French artists, he illustrated the book Les Chauves-Souris with Antonio de La Gandara. He also knew the impressionists, notably Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas, and was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement. As a young artist, he maintained a close friendship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Whistler's lover and model for "The White Girl," Joanna Hiffernan, also posed for Gustave Courbet. Whistler painted the full-length life sized portrait of her in the winter of 1861-62 in a studio at 18 boulevard Pigalle in Paris. Historians speculate that Courbet's erotic painting of her as L'Origine du monde led to the breakup of the friendship between Whistler and Courbet.
In 1888, Whistler married Beatrix Godwin, the widow of the architect E. W. Godwin. The five years of their marriage (before her death from cancer) were very happy.

He was well-known for his biting wit, especially in exchanges with his friend Oscar Wilde. Both were figures in the café society of Paris at the turn of the 20th century. It was once said that the young Oscar Wilde attended one of Whistler's dinners, and hearing his host make some brilliant remark, Wilde apparently said, "I wish I'd said that." Whistler riposted, "You will, Oscar, you will!" (This quip has also been credited to Frank Harris.)


La Vieille aux loques (1858), etching

La Vieille aux loques (1858), etching

A supremely gifted engraver, Whistler produced numerous etchings, lithographs, and dry-points. His lithographs, some drawn on stone, others drawn directly on "lithographie" paper, are perhaps half as numerous as his etchings. Some of the lithographs are of figures slightly draped; two or three of the very finest are of Thames subjects — including a "nocturne" at Limehouse; while others depict the Faubourg Saint-Germain in Paris, and Georgian churches in Soho and Bloomsbury in London. The etchings include portraits of family, mistresses, and intimate street scenes in London and Venice.


Whistler's influence was significant, and has been the subject of museum exhibitions and publications. A trip to Venice in 1880 to create a series of etchings not only reinvigorated Whistler's finances, but also re-energized the way in which artists and photographers interpreted the city. His tonalism had a profound effect on many American artists, including John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase. Famous protégés included Oscar Wilde and impressionist painter Walter Sickert; Whistler fell out with both Wilde and Sickert. He successfully sued Sickert in the 1890s over a minor legal issue in France. When Wilde was publicly acknowledged to be a homosexual in 1895, Whistler openly mocked him. Another significant influence was upon Arthur Frank Mathews, whom Whistler met in Paris in the late 1890s. Mathews took Whistler's Tonalism to San Francisco, spawning a broad use of that technique among turn of the century California artists.

Once, after he had suffered a heart attack, a Dutch newspaper incorrectly reported Whistler dead. He wrote to the newspaper, saying that reading his own obituary induced a "tender glow of health".

The operetta Patience pokes fun at the Aesthetic movement, and the lead character of Reginald Bunthorne is often identified as send-up of Oscar Wilde. In reality Bunthorne seems to be an amalgam of several prominent artists, writers and Aesthetic figures. Bunthorne wears a monocle and has prominent white streak in his dark hair, as did Whistler.

Whistler published two books which detailed his thoughts on life and art: Ten O'Clock Lecture (1885), and The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890). He was, in turn, the subject of a contemporaneous biography by a friend: the printmaker Joseph Pennell collaborated with his wife Elizabeth Robins Pennell to write The Life of James McNeill Whistler, published in 1908.
Whistler's belief that art should concentrate on the arrangement of colors led many critics to see his work as a precursor of abstract art.

The house in which he was born is now preserved as the Whistler House Museum of Art. He is buried at St Nicholas's Church in Chiswick, London.


Whistler achieved worldwide recognition during his lifetime:



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