Who was painter James Abbott McNeil Whistler?

Self portrait of artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Key Information:

-Forerunner of the Post-Impressionist movement

-Created “art for art’s sake,” a motto used by the painters in the Aesthetic movement

-Utilized a minimalist palette in muted tones

-Named many of his paintings with musical terminology, such as ‘nocturne,’ ‘symphony’ and ‘arrangement,’ in an effort to highlight the artist’s process rather than the subject matter depicted

-Whistler’s most famous work of art is Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, also known as Whistler’s Mother

-Deeply influenced by Japanese art, and responsible for prompting the Anglo-Japanese movement in fine art

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts on July 11, 1834, to Anna McNeill Whistler and George Washington Whistler, James spent the first 9 years of his life in the New England area. After his father received an opportunity to engineer a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow, the family relocated to Russia. As a boy, Whistler was prone to tantrums and fits, and after bouts of frequent illness, would fall into periods of idleness and laziness. His parents realized that drawing seemed to soothe his less positive qualities, and so his artistic pursuits were encouraged. At the tender age of 11, Whistler enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Arts. A few years later when Whistler was about 15, he and his mother visited family in London, and it was here that he decided on a career as an artist. The European artistic adventure was short lived however, because Whistler’s father died of Cholera at the young age of 49, so the remaining family moved back to America, more specifically, Pomfret, Connecticut.

After the death of their patriarch, life changed drastically for the small family, and money was tight. Whistler then enrolled at West Point, was dismissed due to his insubordinate behavior and tallied demerits, and went on to work briefly as a draftsman mapping the entire U.S. After that also didn’t work out, he worked in the etching division of the U.S. Coast Survey, only to, yet again, leave shortly after. Although none of the roles suited him, he gained valuable knowledge from each experience which would come in handy later in his artistic career. It was following these subsequent “bumps in the road” that Whistler decided he was going to take his artistic career seriously, eventually relocating to Paris, never again returning to the United States.

The years that followed were exploratory and frequently troubled, but in 1858 he had the great fortune of meeting fellow artist Henri Fantin-Latour. It was through this friendship that he was introduced to the circle of Gustave Courbet, which included Carolus-Duran (later the teacher of American artist John Singer Sargent), Alphonse Legros, and Édouard Manet.

Many of Whistler’s most famous works are named by him as ‘nocturne,’ ‘symphony’ and ‘arrangement.’ By using musical terminology he was creating the connection between the application of the artist’s chosen media, or in other words, an artist’s process, and the delight of listening to music. It’s not the art’s subject matter that was important to Whistler, it’s how it was created.

“You shouldn’t say it is not good. You should say, you do not like it; and then, you know, you’re perfectly safe.” -Whistler

Whistler was known for his eccentric nature and unwillingness to accept any criticism of his work.  In fact, he did sue one critic for libel because of his less than positive review of the work Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket. Known as the Ruskin trial, the case dragged on for years, and in addition to the costs of simultaneously building a grand house, ultimately bankrupted him. He ended up winning in the end but was only awarded a small portion of his demanded amount and was responsible for half of the court costs.

“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

After the trial Whistler took his art even more seriously than before, and was described by his closest friends as rising early and working all day. He still struggled financially, especially since all of his goods were sold off at Sothebys, but began to sell etchings and pastels. Much to his delight his fame was gaining both in Europe and America. Until his death on July 17, 1093, he continued to build popularity and friendships with other artists and influential people.

Southend Pier

Whistler was adept in many different artistic media, such as pastel, watercolor, oil and etching. He also influenced two generations of artists and such as Arthur Frank Matthews who took Whistler’s use of tonalism back to the San Francisco, igniting a wave of new California artists to adopt the method as well. Matthews said of Whistler:

“He did better than attract a few followers and imitators; he influenced the whole world of art. Consciously, or unconsciously, his presence is felt in countless studios; his genius permeates modern artistic thought.”

Nocturne, Battersea Bridge

Whistler’s legacy is kept alive by the Whistler House Museum of Art in Lowell Massachusetts, which was his childhood home, and the Glasgow University where much of his work now resides.

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