xxxxxAn American by birth, the artist James Whistler spent most of his life in Europe. He began his career in Paris in 1855 and, initially, under the influence of his friend Gustav Courbet, produced realist works, including At the Piano. In the early 1860s, however, working in London, he became a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement, believing in its doctrine of “art for art’s sake”. A painting, he argued, was not important for its subject matter, but for the beauty implicit in the composition and the harmony of colours by which it was portrayed. Thus the famous painting of his mother, produced in 1871, lacking in depth and muted in tone, was to be appreciated as An arrangement in Grey and Black. Many of his works in this original style were influenced by Japanese art - such as Rose and Silver : The Princess from the Land of Porcelain - but he belonged to no school, and his paintings, notably his Nocturnes (moody London night scenes), were abstracts, anticipating the modern art movement of the early 20th century. A flamboyant dandy who enjoyed the limelight, his wide circle of friends included the Pre-Raphaelites Rossetti, Millais and Burne-Jones, the impressionists Manet and Degas, the poet Swinburne, and the writer Oscar Wilde. Numbered among his critics, however, were John Ruskin, whom he sued for libel, and William Morris. Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl, and Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux, are two of his best known works. Apart from his talent as a highly original painter in oil, he was an extremely fine etcher, and he also excelled in lithography, watercolour and pastel.

JAMES ABBOTT McNEILL WHISTLER  1834 - 1903  (W4, Va, Vb, Vc, E7)


Whistler: Portrait by the English artist Walter Greaves (1846-1930) – National Portrait Gallery, London; Whistler’s Artwork: Whistler’s Mother (Arrangement in Grey and Black) – Musé d’Orsay, Paris; Woman in White – National Gallery of Art, Washington; Princess in the Land of Porcelain – Freer Gallery of Art, Washington; Falling Rocket (Nocturne in Black and Gold) – Detroit Institute of Arts, USA; Limehouse (etching) – Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England; Caricature – published in Vanity Fair Magazine, January 1878; Annabel Lee – Freer Gallery of Art, Washington; The Lagoon, Venice (Nocturne in Blue and Silver) – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Coast of Britanny – Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford CT, USA; Peacocks – Peacock Room, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington; Self-Portrait with hat – Freer Gallery of Art, Washington; Pennell: First World War Poster – Library of Congress, Washington.

xxxxxJames Abbott McNeill Whistler was a cosmopolitan American painter and etcher who, by his technical innovations, became a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement and an early champion of modern art. Admired by some, loathed by others, his daring, original style of painting, and his flamboyant, egocentric personality made him one of the most outstanding characters in the artistic world during the second half of the 19th century. Today, he is remembered above all for the portrait he painted of his mother - the famous “Whistler’s Mother” of 1871 - a work which epitomises his profound belief in the creed of “art for art’s sake”.

xxxxxHe was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but he spent most of his life in Europe, particularly in Paris and London. From the age of nine he spent six years in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father, a civil engineer, was involved in the building of a railroad to Moscow. He attended the city’s Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, but in 1849 the family returned to the United States, and two years later he attended West Point Military Academy. He stayed the course for three years, but he was not really cut out for a military career, and was discharged in 1954, ostensibly because he failed a chemistry examination. He was employed as a draftsman in Washington for a short while, and it was here that his interest in etching - heightened by seeing works by Hogarth and Rembrandt - persuaded him to become an artist.

xxxxxHe arrived in Paris in 1855, and was soon at home as a Bohemian dandy and wit. As a student he was inspired by the work of the Dutch and Spanish masters of the 17th century, particularly Rembrandt and Velasquez, but it was as an etcher that he first made his name and gained commercial success. His Twelve Etchings from Nature (the so-called “French Set” of 1858) were particularly well received, and encouraged him to return to this medium at various stages throughout his career. The following year, however, through his close friendship with the artist Gustav Courbet, he turned to oil painting. The influence that this realist artist had on him can be seen over the next two years. His first major work At the Piano - despite its dual focal point and limited use of colour - was admired by many of his fellow artists, including Courbet and John Everett Millais, and this was followed by three realist works, The Coast of Brittany (illustrated below) and two London waterside views, The Thames in Ice and Wapping.

xxxxxButxin 1862, now working in London, his art took a completely new and largely un-chartered direction. His work of that year, The White Girl, (illustrated here) rejected realism and embraced aestheticism, a philosophy based on the doctrine of “art for art’s sake”. A painting, he claimed, was important not for the accurate portrayal of the subject matter, nor the moral or story it might evoke or symbolise (such as pity or patriotism), but simply for the beauty implicit in the composition itself, and for the subtle range of colours by which it was portrayed. Paintings were autonomous creations to be judged by what was to be seen on the surface of the canvas. And in order to emphasise this new direction, his works now became arrangements, symphonies or harmonies in differing tones of colour, based on the idea that art was for the eye as music was for the ear. The White Girl, he made clear was nothing to do with Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White, nor was it a symbol of purity or the like. It was simply a study (a “symphony”) in a subtle range of white. It followed that detail was ruthlessly subordinated to “mood and mass”, and the painting technique - concerned only with colour - was achieved by washes of exceedingly thin paint (his so-called “sauce”), laid on with fast, ribbon-like sweeps of the brush.

xxxxxThis shift in style was to be seen in a number of transitional works (such as the Japanese inspired Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony), and became fully developed in a series of river scenes and stylistic, full-length portraits in delicate, muted tones. Not surprisingly, it was an art form which did not go down well with the artistic establishment, and it came in for particularly harsh criticism in 1871, when Whistler produced a portrait of his mother, then staying in London. A study of balance and repose, it was doubtless painted with affection, but this was not readily apparent. Totally devoid of sentimentality, flat in composition and produced in sombre, puritanical tones, it was simply entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black (illustrated above). It was, in fact, a perfect example of art for art’s sake. Then throughout the 1870s there followed a series of “Nocturnes”, moody London night scenes which included two works in Grey and Gold: Westminster Bridge and Chelsea Snow. Painted from memory and totally lacking in detail, they too were the result of fluid spontaneity, produced simply for their own merit.

xxxxxThese paintings established Whistler as a controversial artist of great originality. In some instances they were clearly influenced by Japanese prints and Asian porcelain, as seen in works like Purple and Rose: The Lange Lijzen of the Six Marks, and Rose and Silver : The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (illustrated). Oriental art was much in fashion at this time, made popular by the Paris World Fair of 1867. But Whistler was not associated with any particular school of painters. He numbered among his friends Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Edward Burne-Jones, and some of his work shows the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites - such as The Little White Girl of 1864 -, but he was never a member of the movement. Nor, friendly though he was with Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, was he a disciple of Impressionism, the new school then emerging. Indeed, unlike the impressionists, he made no attempt to look at nature and life through a fresh, original vision. His Nocturnes, for example, were abstractions, forerunners of the modern art which was to take hold in the early 20th century.

xxxxxIt was one of these Nocturnes, The Falling Rocket of July 1877 (illustrated) which spelled disaster for Whistler. The art critic John Ruskin who, along with William Morris and others, was strongly critical of aestheticism as applied to art, condemned this painting as unfinished, a “pot of paint flung in the public’s face”. Whistler sued him for libel and, revelling in the public attention it created, used the court hearing to give a theatrical justification of his theories on art. Technically, he won the case, but he was only awarded one farthing in damages (one quarter of an old penny!). As a result, the cost of the trail pushed him deep into debt. This only added to his troubles. Only the previous year he had lost the support of his wealthy patron, the Liverpool ship-owner Fredrick Leyland. He had commissioned Whistler to decorate the dining room of his London home, but was appalled and not a little angry when he saw the result. Working throughout the summer of 1876, Whistler had covered the entire room, including wood panels, antique leather furniture and the ceiling, with an elaborate design of blue and gold peacocks, replete with gold leaf. It was, in modern parlance, “way over the top”, and Leyland refused to pay the agreed price and withdrew his support.

xxxxxDespite efforts to avoid the inevitable, Whistler was declared bankrupt in 1879, and took himself off to Venice with his mistress, Maud Franklin There, over a period of fourteen months, he produced 50 meticulously drawn etchings and over 90 pastels of local scenes. On his return to London, these works, together with the publication of sets of etchings produced earlier in London, France and Amsterdam, helped to provide an income, and went some way to restoring his reputation. By the early 1880s he had regained his position as one of the most colourful characters in London society, and, influenced by the 19th century painter Camille Corot, had turned to the painting of small seascapes in oil and water colour.

xxxxxIn 1888 Whistler married Beatrice, widow of his architect friend William Godwin, and for a number of years they lived in Paris. Honours then came his way, and a successful exhibition of his work was held in 1892. By then Glasgow Corporation had paid 1,000 guineas for his portrait of the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, and the French government had bought Whistler’s Mother for the nation - ironically seen as a “symbol of motherhood”. But sadness came with success. In 1896 Beatrice (Trixie as he called her) died of cancer after a long illness - described by Whistler as “one long anxiety and terror” - and his productive days were over. He ran an art school in Paris for a while, but returned to London in 1902 and died there the following year.

xxxxxA flamboyant dandy who was known for his ready wit and sharp tongue, Whistler’s literary friends included the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne - who wrote a poem about his Symphony in White: The Little White Girl of 1865 - and the equally famous fop and wit Oscar Wilde. Both these friendships ended in acrimony, in fact, but the symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé, whom he met in the 1880s, proved a constant and stimulating friend. Whistler’s own writings included his Ten O’Clock Lecture of 1885, and this was later embodied in his The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a flippant but informative work of 1890 in which he gives his views on art and artists, and recounts his celebrated libel action against Ruskin.

xxxxxIn a long and eventful career, Whistler aroused a great deal of public interest on account of his eccentricity and his artistic arrogance. Wilde once commented that Whistler always spelt art with a capital “I”. His outrageous, unconventional behaviour apart, however, he showed extreme technical proficiency as an artist, and his defence of aesthetic values, based on simple form and harmonious, muted colours, made him a pioneer in the development of abstract art. He also excelled in lithographs, pastels and watercolours, and his etchings place him among the world’s greatest artists in this medium. The pastel shown here is entitled Annabel Lee.

xxxxxIncidentally, in 1866 Whistler, the failed West Point cadet, suddenly went off to take part in a war then being fought in Chile. By the time he arrived in Valparaiso the fighting was virtually over. While there, however, he produced some fine seascapes and views of the harbour, including Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso. ……

xxxxx…… His close friendship with Courbet, so important to him when he first began painting, came to an end in 1867. While Whistler was away in Chile his attractive mistress Joanna Hiffernan acted as the model for two of Courbet’s highly erotic paintings, The Sleepers and The Origin of the World. This tarnished their relationship and virtually brought it to an end. ……

xxxxx…… In 1869 a dispute arose over his signature, and from then he took to signing his paintings with various forms of a stylized butterfly. An early version was thought appropriate by the critics, with the wings symbolising the subtle delicacy of his work and the long tail, complete with sting, representing his sharp tongue and aggressive attitude! ……

xxxxx…… After the row that erupted in 1876 over the famous “Peacock Room”, Whistler sneaked back to the house and added two fighting peacocks to the décor in the guise of a ruffled Leyland and a hapless Whistler! He called the encounter “Art and Money” or “The Story of the Room”. The room and its décor was taken to the United States in 1904 and eventually put on display in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. ……

xxxxx…… The Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera Patience of 1881, a powerful satire on the aesthetic movement, included Whistler as well as Swinburne among those selected for ridicule. The stage character Reginald Bunthorne wore Swinburne’s velvet jacket and sported Whistler’s hair style and monocle. ……

xxxxx…… In 1902 Whistler suffered a heart attack and a Dutch newspaper, misconstruing the news, reported his death. He let the editor know that reading the announcement had brought him “a tender glow of health”.


xxxxxShown here are: Nocturne in blue and silver: The Lagoon, Venice; The Coast of Brittany; and Self-Portrait of Whistler with Hat.

xxxxxThexFrench artist Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) was a close friend of Whistler. He excelled in painting delicate still-lifes and group portraits, and his Homage to Delacroix of 1864 included Whistler among a group of poets, writers and painters. Andxanother of Whistler’s close friends was the American artist and author Joseph Pennell (1857-1926). He published a biography of Whistler in 1908. He was a talented etcher and lithographer and, in collaboration with his wife, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, wrote a number of travel books, including Our Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, A Canterbury Pilgrimage, and Our Journey to the Hebrides. During the First World War he became famous for his set of war bond posters, one depicting New York in flames and the Statue of Liberty badly damaged (illustrated).