[ Home: Virtual Museum: Individual Artists: James Whistler ]


James Abbott McNeil Whistler: 1843 - 1903

James Abbott McNeil Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the son of an army officer who had become an engineer and traveled widely in the exercise of his profession. From 1842 to 1849, the family lived mostly in St. Petersburg, Russia. Whistler took his first at lessons at the Academy of Fine Arts there.

On the death of his father in 1849, Whistler went back to America. In 1851 he enrolled at West Point Military Academy, but three years later he was dismissed (He failed chemistry). He worked for some time in Washington for the United States Coast and Geodetic Service, in which he received a useful training in etching. In 1855 he left America, never to return, and went to Paris to study art under Gleyre. There he knew Courbet, Manet, Monet, Degas, and Fantin-Latour.

The Pre-raphaelite movement was well under way when the Salon des Refuses took place in 1863. One of the most detested pictures in that exhibition was Whistler's The White Girl. The painting, which Whistler preferred to call Symphony in White No.1 is one of the fine pictures of nascent impressionism, and there is no good explanation as to why Whistler at this point abandoned Paris to continue his career in England. Certainly it was not because he was wounded by the reception of The White Girl or because he feared a good fight. For the rest of his life he was one of the liveliest scrappers in London.

Without adopting Pre-Raphaelitism he became a fixture in the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic circle and that of the younger men, like Oscar Wilde, who carried Pre-Raphaelite aestheticism on into the 1890's with even more precious and immensely more sophisticated variations. He knew the poet Swinburne and the novelist and critic George Moore, he became a great dandy and famous wit, a bright figure among the creative talents and their admiring circle who continued the Pre-Raphaelite revolt against the materialism and stuffiness of the Victorian age.

As an impressionist, Whistler never adopted the broken strokes and the sunlit effects developed by his former French associates. He worked instead more and more in a muted palette of grays and blacks, softly blended, painting the misty tonalities of evening or gray days, sometimes flecked or splashed with red or golden lights, with strong reference to Japanese prints or Oriental ink-wash drawings with there simplification and their subtle, colorless gradations. Ruskin, who had understood Turner's art when he was a young man, was unable to accept Whistler's now that he was an aging professor. He was so infuriated by Whistler's Falling Rocket, Nocturne in Black and Gold, a picture which might have delighted Turner, that he wrote, "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 sued Ruskin for libel, as much for the sport of it as for any reason, and after a well-publicized trail was awarded damages of one farthing. Poor Ruskin suffered a mental breakdown the following year (1878) and for the remaining miserable twenty-two years of his life was removed from the critical scene while Whistler continued to send up rockets.

In Venice from 1879 to 1880, he produced a series of pastels and etchings. The prints, which have the shimmering light of the city for their subject, are an original contribution to graphic art. When whistler returned to London he was gradually able to sell his work, but the encounter with Ruskin had bankrupted him and he returned a bitter man and the less pleasant, caustic side of his nature emerged. He had always been vain and opinionated, considering the artist to be above normal criticism. Now his doctrine "art for art's sake" became an obsession. The style of his wit resembled that of his much younger acquaintance Oscar Wilde, though in a more barbed and personal vein.

Whistler painted comparatively little in the last 20 years of his life. In 1888 he married Mrs. Godwin, a friend he had long admired. For some years they lived in Paris. The Portrait of the Artist's Mother was bought for the French nation in 1891. Whistler was made an officer of the Legion of Honor, and one of his lectures called "Ten o'Clock" was translated into French. Two years after his wife's death in 1896, he opened the short-lived Academie Whistler in Paris. By 1902, a sick man, he began to destroy the drawings and paintings he thought unsatisfactory. He died in London in 1903.

Additional Exhibits for James Abbott McNeil Whistler
The White Girl: The Making of a Masterpiece Whistler the Maverick

Please direct all inquiries, corrections, and submissions to [email protected].