James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Biography and Legacy
Biography of James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Childhood and Education
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.
Whistler's mother strove to keep her children morally grounded and to give them every opportunity, despite their precarious financial situation. She sent James to Christ Church Hall School and read Bible verses to him every morning in the hope that he would pursue a career as a minister. But her son would not be deterred from pursuing art. Whistler enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1852, where he studied drawing under Robert W. Weir, but his aversion to authority and poor academic performance led to his expulsion shortly thereafter. Map-making, a skill developed at West Point, helped Whistler acquire his first job upon leaving school as a topographical draftsman for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. During his brief two-month tenure, the artist learned about the etching process, a skill that he would later use to create 490 etchings, drypoints, and mezzotints. Intent on pursuing art as a profession, Whistler left for Europe in 1855. He would never return to the United States.
Paris provided a solid training ground for Whistler in more ways than one, the confident youth was briefly a student at the Ecole Imperiale before attending the atelier of Swiss painter Charles Gabriel Gleyre, later teacher to Impressionists Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Finding himself far removed from his mother's religious influence, the 21-year-old quickly fell into the manner of a bohemian artist. He adopted the casual air of the carefully coiffed flâneur, idly strolling along Parisian boulevards and taking in every detail of his urban surroundings. "Jimmy," as he was known to friends, spent his funds lavishly on clothes, tobacco, food, drink, and art supplies. He was often reduced to pawning possessions or relying on the generosity of friends to cover his mounting debt. An admirer of 17th-century Dutch and Spanish masters, Whistler copied their works on view in the Louvre and sold them to help alleviate his financial burden.
Whistler's true artistic development began in 1858 when he became friends with French painter Henri Fantin-Latour and through him met Realist painters Gustave Courbet, Alphonse Legros, and Édouard Manet, as well as the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire who is credited with defining the term "modernity" as the fleetingness of the urban experience. Whistler's painting style at this early juncture was deeply influenced by Courbet's realism, as seen in the earthy colors and finely textured surfaces of At the Piano (1859). Created the same year the artist relocated to London, At the Piano depicts a mother and child, the artist's half-sister and niece, in the music room of their London home. The painting was well received when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860. And yet within a few years, Whistler abandoned this Realist perspective in favor of a whimsical style more closely aligned with Aestheticism in terms of its decorative quality. His incorporation of oriental props and adherence to Japanese aesthetic principles further separated him from the Realists, while catapulting him to new heights within the Aesthetic movement.
Whistler settled permanently in London in 1859, but visited and exhibited his work in continental Europe, particularly France, frequently, though not always with the success he sought. For example, the portrait of his mistress Joanna Hiffernan titled Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) was rejected by both the Royal Academy in London and the French Salon. The rejected painting instead appeared under the title The White Girl in the Salon des Refusés in 1863, along with work by other avant-garde artists, including Édouard Manet. Though derided by more conservative viewers at the time, The White Girl, like Manet's Le dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863), is now considered an important early example of modern art. It is the first of many works by Whistler that relied on color to explore spatial and formal relationships in a visually stimulating manner consistent with the Aesthetic belief in "art for art's sake."
The painter was as adventurous in his travels as he was with a brush. In 1866 Whistler unexpectedly set sail for Valparaiso, Chile. Some scholars have speculated that he was sympathetic to the Chilean army then at war with Spain and ventured there to support the Chilean war effort. Regardless of his reason for making the trip, once there Whistler painted three seascapes that marked a shift in his artistic repertoire. These evening harbor scenes initially titled "moonlights" and later changed to "nocturnes," inspired similarly titled impressionist views of the Thames River and Cremorne Gardens created upon the artist's return to London.
Whistler became aware of Impressionism thanks to fellow artists Claude Monet and Camille Pissaro, who in 1870 had temporarily relocated to London to avoid the Franco-Prussian War. During these years, Whistler created his nocturnes by applying thin layers of paint peppered with flecks of bright color to suggest distant lights or ships. Japanese aesthetic principles, such as simplified forms and expressive lines, evident in these paintings, were a revelation for English Aesthetic artists unfamiliar with Asian prints and porcelain collected by Whistler and his French contemporaries. Similar to his portraits and consistent with French Impressionist principles, Whistler's nocturnes also show his modernist preoccupation with creating an overall effect at the expense of specific details and accurate representation. In fact Edgar Degas invited Whistler to join the Impressionist's first group exhibition in 1874, but Whistler declined.
Although Whistler painted maritime nocturnes for the next 10 years, his production of portraits did not wane. It was during this period that he created his best-known work, a portrait of his mother titled Arrangement in Gray and Black or Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1871). The painting brought him great success, but the arrival of his mother in 1864 had put a severe crimp in the carefree life he had been living in London. When he learned of her plans to stay with him, the twenty-nine year old Whistler was forced to straighten-up his life, which included moving his then mistress Joanna Hiffernan out of his house and into an apartment.
As Whistler grew in recognition as an artist, so too did his reputation as a witty, opinionated man. He once bested Oscar Wilde at a party by calling attention to the author's habit of plagiarizing clever phrases (including some of Whistler's own). But the artist also suffered from volatile mood swings and a considerable temper, maladies he had been grappling with since childhood. Indeed it was anger and jealousy that caused Whistler's relationship with his mistress Joanna Hiffernan to fall apart after she posed nude for his friend Gustave Courbet.
Whistler's dominant personality at times adversely affected his career as an artist. Now celebrated as the greatest example of Anglo-Japanese artistic fusion and the most significant contribution to Aesthetic interior design, Whistler's Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77) caused considerable strife between the artist and his patron Frederick Leyland. Whistler was an avid collector of Japanese prints and porcelain. So when Leyland asked him to make some minor changes to his dining room designed to showcase his own collection of porcelain, Whistler eagerly accepted. The artist's modifications, however, proved to be more extensive than expected and a payment dispute ensued.
Whistler also argued with art critics. By way of explaining his approach to painting, he developed his own theory of art that he described in 1873 as "the science of color and 'picture pattern'." Upset by what he viewed as an attack on Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874) in the form of a poor review by John Ruskin, Whistler sued the art critic for libel. Although the artist won, the judge's award of a single farthing, the equivalent of mere pennies, made a strong statement about the value the court placed on the case. Whistler's need to pay his expensive court costs forced him into financial ruin.
In 1879 a bankrupt Whistler was forced out of his London home. He and his new mistress, Maud Franklin, traveled to Venice where he fulfilled a commission from the Fine Art Society to create a series of etchings. During his fourteen-month sojourn, Whistler also created many pastel and watercolor paintings along with more than fifty etchings of scenes from Venice. His etchings of the Italian city were well received when exhibited in London in 1880 and 1883 and demand developed for his pastels.
During the later years of his life he continued to paint portraits, experimented with color photography and lithographs, and published two books; Ten O'clock Lecture (1885) and The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890). Ever cognizant of his public persona, Whistler worked hard to cultivate his image as a successful artist. He could often be seen wearing a monocle, bamboo walking stick in hand, sporting a single white forelock in his otherwise brown hair, a distinction friends attributed to his "wickedness." Always striving for control, he was known to advise women what to wear to his exhibitions so that their outfits would not clash with the colors in his works. By the 1890s, Whistler had also created his own unique signature: a butterfly formed from his initials with a stinger for a tail - an allusion, perhaps, to his delicate touch and sharp tongue.
In 1888 Whistler married his former pupil and friend Beatrix Godwin. A reputable woman, her connections helped him secure more commissions for work. The couple eventually moved to Paris where Whistler established a studio and had a period of productive output before suffering the loss of his wife to cancer in 1896. Later, Whistler founded an art school but his failing health made the project unmanageable. The school closed in 1901, just two years before Whistler's death in 1903.
The Legacy of James Abbott McNeill Whistler
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, like Courbet, adopted an artistic persona and staunchly defended his work in a manner that would inspire later generations of artists to challenge art authorities. Although his painting style was too radical for many Victorians, by the time of his death the artist had been credited with introducing modern French painting to England, as noted in London's Daily Chronicle: "It is twenty-five years since the famous case, 'Whistler versus Ruskin,' was tried. In the history of art it might be 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."
The influence of Whistler's work is most apparent in the paintings of his American contemporaries and later generations of modern artists. John Singer Sargent, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Albert Herter are among other American painters who admired and at times imitated Whistler's approach to color and even the arrangement of forms within his pictures. The artist's Nocturnes marked the beginning of art's movement toward abstraction, which would culminate in the gestural Action Paintings of Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. By envisioning and titling his works in abstract musical terms, Whistler helped spearhead a new modern approach to painting in which the medium itself is the subject, not the sitter or landscape pictured.