James Abbott McNeill Whistler (18341903)
NOTE: For analysis of works by American
painters like Whistler,
A major figure in Victorian art, the small, egotistical and quarrelsome, Whistler was associated with the Aesthetic Movement, believing in creating art for art's sake. Strongly influenced by Edouard Manet and Diego Velazquez, he strove to express the harmony and beauty of music through visual means, and is best remembered for his Impressionist-style landscape painting - given musical names such as 'arrangements', 'harmonies' and 'nocturnes', such as Nocturne in Blue And Silver - Chelsea (1871, Tate Collection, London) and Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket (1875, Detroit Institute of Arts). Whistler was also a talented portraitist, his most famous work of portrait art is Portrait of the Artist's Mother (Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1) (1871). In addition, he was one of the great masters of etching - comparable even with Rembrandt - and a talented decorative artist. Born in America, educated in Russia, he spent most of his adult life in Britain.
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Early Life and
In 1847 Whistler's mother moved the family temporarily to London, while her husband remained in Russia. Young Whistler continued to study art, attending exhibitions and lectures on painting and photography. He read art books and it became clear that he had found his chosen career. At the age of 15, he wrote to his father to tell him of his intending career with the hope he would not object. His father however died of cholera shortly after. The family returned to the hometown of his mother in Connecticut. Money was short and times were difficult.
Shortly after, Whistler was sent to West
Point Academy, where his father had once taught drawing and other relatives
had attended. It was because of this, and despite Whistler's bad eyesight
and not particularly robust health, that he was admitted. He remained
for three years but failed his final exams. It appears he was more interested
in drawing caricature than studying
the art of warfare. He did however learn the skill of drafting maps, which
resulted in his first job: to draft the entire US coast for military purposes.
After it was discovered that he was more fond of drawing mermaids than
seacoasts, he was transferred to the printmaking
department. He only lasted in this position a few months but it proved
valuable training in etching.
After returning to Paris for a brief period, Whistler produced one of his first famous works - Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) now at The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. The portrait is of his mistress and manager Joanna Hiffernan. Critics saw the girl in a white dress, holding a fading flower as an elegy for lost innocence. Whistler claims it was simply a study in white. Some even considered it a study in the Pre-Raphaelite manner. The work was rejected by the official Salon but accepted by the Salon des Refuses in 1863. (See also: Best Impressionist Paintings.)
His changing style confused his contemporaries. On the unveiling of his Falling Rocket nocturne - a painting in which the subject matter dissolves almost entirely into a complex interplay of colour and form - it was criticised heavily by the English critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) who accused the artist of flinging "a pot of paint in the public's face". Whistler sued for libel and resulting court case has become quite famous. Whistler's wit and responses have gone down in history. Asked how long it had taken him to 'knock off' the painting, he replied 'two days'. He was then asked if it was for 2 days he charged 200 guineas. He replied: 'No. I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime'. Whistler won the case, but the legal costs left him bankrupt.
After his death, Whistler's sensitive paintings found a more appreciative audience. He was a pioneer of simplification, clearing out Victorian clutter, expounding the use of simple, plain colours. He left behind over 500 paintings, as well as countless watercolours, etchings, pastel drawings, and lithographs. During his lifetime he influenced a generation of artists in the Realism and Symbolism schools, including the Norwegian landscape artist P.S. Kroyer (1851-1909), and the Danish interiors painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916). He also had a huge impact on the Glasgow School of Painting and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
In some ways, Whistler's discreet and subtle oil painting was the complete antithesis of his voluble, ostentatious personality. Except it was founded on a radical doctrine: that art should exist for its own sake rather than to propagate a moral or social idea. "Art should be independent of all claptrap - should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear." He remains one of the finest painters of the modern era and a major figure in expatriate American art of the second half of the 19th century.
Paintings by James Abbott McNeill Whistler can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world. Among them are the following key works:
- Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl
(1862) National Gallery, Washington DC.
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