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James Abbott McNeill Whistler

American-British Painter

James Abbott McNeill Whistler Photo
Born: July 11, 1834
Lowell, Massachusetts
Died: July 17, 1903
London, England
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 Whistler Signature

Summary of James Abbott McNeill Whistler

One of the most significant figures in modern art and a forerunner of the Post-Impressionist movement, James Abbott McNeill Whistler is celebrated for his innovative painting style and eccentric personality. He was bold and self-assured, and quickly developed a reputation for his verbal and legal retaliations against art critics, dealers, and artists who insulted his work. His paintings, etchings, and pastels epitomize the modern penchant for creating "art for art's sake," an axiom celebrated by Whistler and others in the Aesthetic movement. They also represent one of the earliest shifts from traditional representational art to abstraction that is at the heart of much of modern art.


Biography of James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler Photo

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was the oldest son of engineer George Washington Whistler and his devoutly Episcopalian second wife Anna McNeill. As a child Whistler was temperamental and prone to mood swings. His parents quickly discovered that drawing soothed him and so they encouraged his artistic inclinations. When in 1842 Whistler's father was recruited by Tsar Nicholas I to design a railroad, James moved with his father, mother, and younger brother William (later a surgeon for the Confederate army) to St. Petersburg in Russia. There, the precocious youth insisted on showing his drawings to Sir William Allan, a Scottish painter hired by the Tsar to create a portrait of Peter the Great. Allan encouraged the youth to cultivate his talents and in 1845, at age 11, Whistler was enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. This, Whistler's first formal art instruction, ended just four years later when his father died from cholera and the family returned to the United States, settling in Pomfret, Connecticut.

Important Art by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl (1862)

Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl (1862)

Originally titled The White Girl, this painting depicts a young woman, Whistler's mistress and model Joanna Hiffernan, with long, flowing red hair and wearing a simple white cambric dress. She stands on a similarly colored bearskin rug as she grasps a white flower at her side, her distant gaze lending her a doll-like quality. Indeed, Whistler treats her as a toy or pawn of sorts in that that artist is here less concerned with the accuracy of portraiture as he is with using the canvas as a means of exploring tonal variations. That Whistler later re-titled the painting Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl to draw attention to the varying white tones of the work and suggest a comparison between them and music notes, clarifies this objective.

The painting bears the distinction of being the first work to truly achieve fame for the artist. Rejected by London's Royal Academy and the French Academy's Salon for its inappropriate subject matter that seemed to suggest the loss of innocence, the painting appeared in the Salon des Refuses in 1863, where it was greatly admired by Édouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, and Charles Baudelaire, among others. Symphony in White denotes Whistler's shift from mimicking Courbet's realism to developing his own signature abstract style in which he focused on using subtle color variations, texture, and the careful balancing of forms or shapes to convey a mood that would appeal to the senses.

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville (1865)

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville (1865)

In this work, one of at least five paintings created by Whistler in Trouville, a solitary figure stands on a beach, looking out across the wide expanse of water before him. The figure's gaze directs us toward two sailboats that appear right of center along the high horizon line. The bearded man depicted on shore is the artist's friend and Realist painter Gustave Courbet, who accompanied Whistler to Trouville in 1865 when this painting was created. Originally titled Courbet - on Sea Shore, Whistler later changed the title to reflect his growing interest in associating his painted canvases with musical compositions. The figure and the landscape in which he resides almost disappear into the washes of color Whistler delicately applied through sweeping brushstrokes of thinned paint.

The painting pays tribute to Courbet, who deeply influenced Whistler's early artistic development, and yet it also signals Whistler's movement away from Courbet's realism toward Aestheticism. Trouville has no clear meaning or moral message. Instead, it exemplifies Whistler's experimentation with color tones and methods of applying paint to the canvas surface so as to promote visual or sensual stimulation. This notion that color harmonies, mood, and beauty of form are more important than the subject matter itself was at the heart of "art for art's sake," the proud motto of the Aesthetic movement, for which Whistler became a leading proponent. The soft colors and dreamy, atmospheric quality created through Whistler's use of broad, sweeping brushstrokes also marks this painting as an important precursor to the American Tonalist movement of the 1880s.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1871)

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1871)

Otherwise known as Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Anna McNeill Whistler is clothed in a long black dress with a simple white lace cap, seated in profile, steadily gazing ahead, and holding a white handkerchief in her lap. On the wall behind her appears a reproduction of Whistler's View of the Thames. The Japanese-inspired floral patterning on the curtain hanging at left denotes the artist's well known interest in the Japanese aesthetic. Whistler's stylized butterfly signature is just visible at the top right corner of this curtain. The arrangement of forms appears simple when in fact there is a careful balancing of shapes at play. For example, the rectangular shapes of the picture on the wall, curtain at left, and the floor help stabilize the sitter's form.

A religiously devout woman, Anna McNeill Whistler had been living with her son in his London home for seven years when he asked her to pose for him after a model canceled a scheduled session. At 67 old, Whistler's mother found it difficult to stand for extended periods of time and so the artist changed the pose to a seated position for her comfort.

In 1891 the painting became the first American work to be purchased by the French government. This elevated Whistler's reputation and aided him in securing wealthy American patrons. Considered an iconic painting, Portrait of the Artist's Mother is one of a very few, including Edvard Munch's The Scream and Grant Wood's American Gothic, that can be appreciated by the art-viewing elite while also resonating with the masses with minimal explanation required. It is overwhelmingly interpreted as symbolic of motherhood, mourning (due to the colors used), or American Puritan Stoicism (because of the sitter's clothes). This particular image has been the source inspiration for many other paintings, including Albert Herter's Portrait of Bessie (1892) and Henry Ossawa Tanner's portrait of his own mother. Whistler's painting has since developed a considerable presence in pop culture, having been referenced in numerous movies, cartoons, and advertisements.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Influenced by Artist
Open Influences
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Influenced by Artist
  • Robert Blum
    Robert Blum
  • Frank Duveneck
    Frank Duveneck
Close Influences

Useful Resources on James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sandy McCain

"James Abbott McNeill Whistler Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments Ideas added by Sandy McCain
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First published on 22 Mar 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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