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James Abbott McNeill Whistler

 (1834 - 1903)
James Abbott McNeill Whistler was active/lived in Massachusetts / England, France.  James Whistler is known for figure, landscape, and portrait painting, etching.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler

    WIST-ler  speaker-click to hear pronunciation  click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, James Whistler became one of the most influential late 19th-century American painters and etchers, although he lived primarily in England.  He worked in a wide variety of styles that included Impressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau.  He was especially influential in the Tonalist movement and was a catalyst for those who wanted to break away from prescribed academic methods, credited with being the first American modernist to influence European art.

He also created 179 lithographs, having received a commission in 1879, and from that time, he worked in graphics, pastel, and watercolor, and favorite subjects were subtly delineated cityscapes or ships at docks.

He was raised both in New England and in Russia where his father, an engineer, was commissioned by the Czar to build the Moscow-St. Petersburg railroad.  In 1847, Whistler went to London for his sister's wedding to Seymour Haden, a key figure in 19th century etching, and association with this man stimulated Whistler's interest in that medium.

After the father's death in 1849, the family returned to the United States, and he entered the Military Academy at West Point where he did illustrations for student publications and also worked as surveyor and cartographer in U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Surveys.

In 1855, determined to have a fine art career, he sailed for Europe and never returned to the United States. He studied in Paris with Charles Gleyre and became a part of avant-garde circles that included Henri Fantin-Latour, Alphonse Legros, Edouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, and Edgar Degas.  In 1859, he settled in England but stayed in close touch with his Parisian friends.

His style was independent of realism and of those such as John Ruskin who thought art should have a moral purpose. To many his paintings were a mystery because they seemed dreamy, abstract, and somewhat ghost-like. For some of his works, he chose musical titles to remove them from narrative context.

Ruskin accused him of doing paintings that were like "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face," and the two faced each other in court when Whistler sued Ruskin for damages. Whistler won the lawsuit but was awarded only one farthing, which left him financially broke and bitter. However, he gained a lot of attention and positive recognition.

Matthew Baigell Dictionary of American Art

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for James Abbott McNeill Whistler
While in Europe, although he liked to pose as a dashing Tidewater cavalier, Whistler never became an officer, and saw little action in the Civil War. This insufficiency troubled him, and it accounts for a peculiar adventure he undertook in 1866, when he sailed from France on a ten-month trip to Chile - a long and grueling trip across the Atlantic and around Cape Horn - to be present at a Spanish naval blockade of the port of Valparaiso.  Whether Whistler thought his being there would make an ounce of difference in the outcome of Chile's small colonial rebellion, one cannot tell.  In the event, the Spanish warships bombarded Valparaiso and reduced most of its waterfront to rubble, while Whistler, along with most of the Chilean officials, fled for the hills.  By the end of 1866 he was back in Paris with a few misty, blue seascapes of Valparaiso to show for his trip, but no honorable scars.

Valparaiso was as close as Whistler ever got to the Orient, but he was seen in France and England as a cultural bridge to Japan.  The formal beauty of Oriental art obsessed him, especially Japanese prints, which were available by the ream in Paris and London, as well as Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, of which he amassed a choice collection.  Through the study of Japanese concision, he brought an esthetic of hints and nuances into late-nineteenth-century painting.  His abhorrence of narrative, his refusal to moralize through art, his preference for the exquisitely designed moment over the slice of life, these were new, and they epitomized his ideal of Art for Art's Sake.

Before leaving on his trip to Chile in 1866, he made a will on January 3lst in favor of his mistress, Jo Hiffernan, giving her power of attorney to manage his affairs during his absence in South America, and on February 2nd departed Southampton on board the Seine. He stopped in Jamaica and Colon, then crossed the Isthmus by land. Journeying south down the Pacific coast, he stopped in Peru, and in March arrived in Valparaiso, after a journey of six weeks. There he witnessed the bombardment of Valparaiso harbor by the Spanish fleet. It is presumed he returned to England by way of Cape Horn, but in any case, he was back there by November, at which time he parted amicably from his mistress.

American Art Review

Biography from Spanierman Gallery
James McNeill Whistler, whose radical art and leadership in the aesthetic movement had profound impact on both American and European artists working in the late nineteenth century, was one of the most original and influential artists of his time. Known for his brilliant and devastating wit, Whistler was an extremely controversial figure who at times alienated his colleagues and the public at large.  However, his tremendous contribution to his era was acknowledged by all.  In 1907, the critic Charles Caffin wrote: "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."

Whistler spent his early years in New England, living in Lowell and Springfield, Massachusetts.  At age nine, he moved with his family to Russia when his father received an appointment to build railroads from the czar of Russia.  Whistler received his first art instruction in Saint Petersburg, attending drawing classes at the Imperial Academy of Science.  In 1848, he joined his half-sister Deborah in London, following her marriage to the English doctor Seymour Haden who later became well known as an etcher.  A year later, after the death of his father, Whistler returned to America and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point.  There he ranked first in the drawing class taught by Robert W. Weir.  However, his poor grades in chemistry led to dismissal from the academy in 1854.  He worked for a brief time at the Winans Locomotive Works in Baltimore and then for the drawings division of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, where he received his first training in etching.

Deciding to become an artist, Whistler moved to Europe in 1855.  He settled in Paris and took up a bohemian life, associating with a group of young English artists and becoming close friends with French painters Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros.  He studied briefly at the Ecole Imperiale et Speciale de Dessin and the following year continued his studies with Charles Gleyre, at his Paris atelier. Dutch and Spanish art of the seventeenth century were of great interest to Whistler during the late 1850s, however, the French Realist painter Gustave Courbet was the most significant influence on his early career.

After his painting At the Piano (Taft Museum, Cincinnati) was rejected by the Salon in 1859, Whistler moved to England.  In London, he became acquainted with the English Pre-Raphaelites, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti with whom he shared a taste for Japanese prints and Greek art and design.  Whistler gradually adopted elements of oriental composition and spatial design, incorporating these in particular in his views of London at night.  By 1872, Whistler had begun to use musical terms as titles for paintings and to formulate his own version of aestheticism.  Whistler's highly abstract works were often the subject of attack, and it was upon seeing Whistler's work at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 that John Ruskin made the disparaging comments that resulted in Whistler's bringing suit for libel in 1878.  After the trial, the artist briefly visited Venice where he became part of an international group of artists that included the American painter Frank Duveneck and his students.

In the 1880s and '90s, Whistler continued to paint landscapes and seascapes capturing ephemeral effects and portrait-arrangements combining realistic portrayals of often elegant figures and delicate color harmonies.  He also continued his involvement with printmaking, creating etchings and lithographs.  He settled in Paris in 1892, opening the Académie Carmen there in 1898.  In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Whistler's art gained international recognition. A large exhibition of his paintings was held in New York in 1889, and in the same year he was awarded medals in Munich, Paris, and Amsterdam.

Whistler's works are in numerous private and public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Tate Gallery, London; the Louvre, Paris; the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D,C.; the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts; the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Lisa N. Peters

© The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery, LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery, LLC, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from Spanierman Gallery, LLC, nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery, LLC.

Biography from Whistler House Museum of Art
The following is from Peter Kostoulakos, ISA - Fine Art Consultant,

James Abbott McNeill Whistler
The Daily Chronicle Obituary

It is twenty-five years since the famous case, "Whistler versus Ruskin", was tried. In the history of art it might two hundred years, so completely has the point of view of the critics and the public changed, so completely has the brilliant genius of the man whom Ruskin called a "coxcomb" been vindicated. And yet, even now, there are no standards by which one can judge his work, by which one can form an estimate of his true place in the ranks of the world's great artists.  That he is among them is not doubted; just how high up among them is not so clear.  It is only once or twice in a century that the originator of a new style in art or literature appears, and it takes at least a century for the world to recover from the dazed condition into which it is thrown by such a man's work.

References: The Daily Chronicle, July18, 1903;
American Art Review, Vol. XVI No. 2 2004.

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About  James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Born:  1834 - Lowell, Massachusetts
Died:   1903 - London, England
Known for:  figure, landscape, and portrait painting, etching