|James McNeill Whistler (11 July 1834 - 17
July 1903), artist, was born James Abbott Whistler in Lowell,
Massachusetts. His parents were George Washington Whistler, civil
engineer, and his second wife, Anna Matilda McNeill.
While in Russia, 1843-48, Whistler studied art with a
student, A. O. Koritskii, and at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts
in St. Petersburg. In London, he saw Rembrandt etchings owned by his
brother-in-law, Francis Seymour Haden, and Raphael cartoons at
After his father's death in 1849 the family returned to America.
In 1851, he entered the United States Military Academy at West
Point, studying art under Robert W. Weir. Deficiencies in chemistry
and discipline led to his expulsion in 1854. An interlude in the
drawing division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey,
Washington, D. C., provided training in etching, the basis of his
future career. In 1855 he sailed for Europe to study art, and, while
remaining an American citizen, never returned.
He attended classes at the Ecole Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin
in Paris, and the studio of Charles Gleyre. He visited the Art
Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857, forming a life-long
passion for the Dutch masters and Velasquez. In the Musée du Louvre,
he met Henri Fantin Latour and, through him, entered the circle of
Gustave Courbet, leader of the Realists. His first important
painting, At the Piano (YMSM 24), a portrait of his
half-sister Deborah Haden and her daughter, was rejected at the
Salon in 1859, but admired by Courbet.
n August 1858 a tour of northern France, Luxembourg
and the Rhineland resulted in Twelve Etchings from Nature,
printed with Auguste Delâtre's help in Paris. Whistler's etchings
hung at the Salon and Royal Academy in 1859. The success of the
'French Set' of etchings encouraged Whistler to move to London,
where he began twelve etchings of the river. In 1862 Baudelaire
praised the depiction of contemporary city life in the 'Thames Set'.
It was published in 1871. Whistler was established at the forefront
of the etching revival.
However, his love of colour, fame, and money, drew him to painting.
A heavily realistic oil, La Mère Gérard (I) (YMSM 26), was
his first Royal Academy exhibit, in 1861. It was followed in 1862 by
The Coast of Brittany (YMSM 37), painted from nature, but
with a lighter range of colour and thinner paint. A Thames-side
conversation-piece, Wapping (YMSM 35), started in 1861, was
exhibited successfully at the Royal Academy in 1864. Bought by
Thomas Winans, it was one of the first Whistlers exhibited in New
York, in 1866.
The model was his red-haired Irish mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, who
posed in Paris in 1861 for 'The White Girl', later called
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (YMSM 38). Rejected by
the Royal Academy in 1862, it hung in a London gallery. In the first
of many published letters, Whistler denied that it represented
Wilkie Collins's 'Woman in White' but simply represents a girl
dressed in white in front of a white curtain' (Athenaeum, 5
July 1862). Rejected also by the Paris Salon in 1863, it was, with
Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, the 'succès de scandale' of the
Salon des Refusés. Paul Mantz in the Gazette des Beaux Arts
(July 1863) called it a 'Symphonie du blanc'. Whistler adopted this
nomenclature publicly for Symphony in White, No. 3 (YMSM 61)
at the Royal Academy in 1867.
In 1863 Whistler moved to Lindsey Row, on the Thames in Chelsea,
where neighbours included the Pre-Raphaelite, D. G. Rossetti. He
maintained contact with the continent, introducing Algernon
Swinburne to Manet, travelling with Legros to Amsterdam in 1863,
posing with Manet and Baudelaire for Fantin's Hommage à Delacroix
in 1864 and working with Courbet at Trouville in 1865. In 1866,
avoiding family and political problems (the arrest of a friend, the
Irish activist, John O'Leary) he travelled to Valparaiso, painting
his first night scenes, including Nocturne in Blue and Gold:
Valparaiso Bay (YMSM 76).
In 1865, when the second 'Symphony in White', The Little White
Girl (YMSM 52), was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Whistler met
Albert Moore, and together they explored the ideals of 'Art for
Art's sake'. Whistler, wishing he had been a pupil of Ingres, began
a series of paintings of classically draped women and flowers on a
musical theme, known as the 'Six Projects' (Freer Gallery of Art)
for the 'Liverpool Medici', the shipowner, F. R. Leyland. Leyland
also bought La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (YMSM 50),
one of several oriental subjects starring Whistler's porcelain. A
dispute over the signature may have led Whistler about 1869 to
develop the famous butterfly signature.
After 1870, he abandoned the 'Six Projects' for portraits and
night scenes, thinly painted in ribbon-like brush-strokes, with thin
washes of paint-like glazes, where detail was subordinated to mood
and mass. It was Leyland who in 1871 suggested the title 'Nocturnes'
for such 'moonlights' as Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea
In 1871 Whistler painted a deeply-felt portrait of his mother,
restrained in colour and severe in composition. In 1872 this
Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother
(YMSM 101) barely escaped rejection and was the last painting he
exhibited at the Royal Academy, yet it entered the Musée du
Luxembourg twenty years later and became one of the most famous of
American portraits. Seeing it, Thomas Carlyle agreed to pose for a
second Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas
Carlyle (YMSM 137), an impressive psychological study. It was
the first of Whistler's paintings to enter a public collection, in
The artist had parted from Joanna Hiffernan, who helped look
after his illegitimate son, Charles Hanson, born in 1870. Maud
Franklin became Whistler's model and mistress. She stood in for Mrs
Frances Leyland's portrait, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink:
Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland (YMSM 106) where every
decorative detail, from rug to dress, was designed by the artist.
Leyland backed Whistler's first one-man exhibition, at a Pall Mall
gallery in 1874, where these portraits hung with etchings and
Whistler worked on a decorative scheme for Leyland's London house
at 49 Princes Gate from 1876-77. The dining room was transformed
into an all-embracing Harmony in Blue and Gold based on
peacock motifs, far exceeding Leyland's wishes. He paid half the
2000 guineas asked, and Whistler lost a patron.
He collaborated with Edward W. Godwin on a stand at the Paris
Exposition Universelle in 1878, and rashly commissioned Godwin to
design the 'White House' in Tite Street. As costs escalated, he
pursued a lavish life-style, entertaining guests to 'Sunday
breakfasts', becoming known as a dandy and wit.
He also defended his aesthetic theories publicly. Writing to the
World on 22 May 1878, regarding Nocturne: Grey and Gold –
Chelsea Snow (YMSM 174) which was at the Grosvenor Gallery, he
explained: 'my combination of grey and gold is the basis of the
picture ... the picture should have its own merit, and not depend
upon dramatic, or legendary, or local interest'.
In the Grosvenor Gallery, he exhibited Arrangement in Black
and Brown: The Fur Jacket (YMSM 181), a portrait of Maud,
'evidently caught in a London fog,' as Oscar Wilde wrote (1877). The
influential art critic, John Ruskin, singled out Nocturne in
Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (YMSM 170), writing that he
'never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for
flinging a pot of paint in the public's face' (Fors Clavigera,
2 July 1877, pp. 181-213). In the ensuing libel case, Whistler
justified the price: `I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in
the work of a lifetime.' He won the case, but was awarded derisory
damages without costs. He published Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and
Art Critics, dedicated to Albert Moore (who had appeared in his
defence), the first in a series of brown paper pamphlets, in
Whistler's position was serious. The birth of a daughter to Maud
Franklin in February 1879 compounded domestic problems. To raise
money he published etchings, including Old Battersea Bridge
(K.177), and, helped by the printer Thomas Way, lithographs, such as
The Toilet (W.6) a portrait of Maud. He painted expressive
watercolours of Nankin porcelain for a catalogue of Sir Henry
Thompson's collection (1878). None of these measures sufficed. In
May 1879 he was declared bankrupt. His work, collections and house
With a commission from the Fine Art Society, London dealers, for
a set of twelve etchings, he left for Venice. He stayed over a year,
producing 50 etchings and over 90 pastels of back streets and
canals, bead-stringers and gondoliers. He joined Frank Duveneck and
his students in the Casa Jankowitz, and worked on etchings with Otto
Bacher. Such etchings as Nocturne (K.184) were distinguished
by a delicate combination of etching and drypoint lines with a
surface tone of ink, producing effects akin to monotype.
In pastels such as The Zattere; Harmony in Blue and Brown
(M.774) the subject was vignette, the brown paper setting off
expressive line and jewel-like colours. These pastels had
considerable influence on the Americans, particularly J. H. Twachtman,
and on the Society of American Painters in Pastel founded in 1882.
Exhibited at the Fine Art Society in 1881, framed in three shades
of gold, and with the room decorated in reddish-brown,
greenish-yellow and gold, the pastels were extensively reviewed. The
etchings were shown in London in 1880 and 1883, and at Wunderlich's
in New York in 1883, in an 'Arrangement in White and Yellow' which
greatly influenced later exhibition design. The catalogue, designed
by Whistler, maliciously quoted earlier press reviews.
The first Venice set of 12 etchings was published in 1880, but
printing took over twenty years. The second set, 26 etchings,
published by Messrs. Dowdeswell in 1886, was printed within a year.
Whistler etched but never published several later sets, including a
'Jubilee Set' in 1887, a 'Renaissance set' in France in 1888, and
Amsterdam in 1889, 'of far finer quality than all that has gone
before – combining a minuteness of detail ... with greater freedom
and more beauty of execution than even the last Renaissance lot can
pretend to' (letter to M. B. Huish, Glasgow University Library).
He travelled widely in England and Continental Europe, and his
work was exhibited in Europe and America. The first watercolour he
exhibited in New York, at the Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition in
1883, was Snow, painted in Amsterdam in 1882. In 1884 he
painted sea-scapes in St. Ives with his pupils, the Australian born
Mortimer Menpes, and the English Walter Sickert. In 1885 he was in
Holland arguing with W. M. Chase. Watercolours like Variations in
Violet and Grey – Market Place, Dieppe (M.1024) were shown
beside those of the Impressionists at the Galerie Georges Petit, in
Paris, in 1883 and 1887. 'His little sketches show fine
draftsmanship,' wrote Pissarro in May 1887, 'he is a showman, but
nevertheless an artist' (J. Rewald, Camille Pissarro, Letters to
Lucien Pissarro, London 1943, pp.108, 110). He oscillated
between London, Paris and Dieppe. In 1901 he filled books with
sketches of Algiers and Corsica.
Whistler alternated between small paintings, only 5 x 8" in size,
and full-length portraits of actors and aristocrats, children and
collectors. Manet introduced him to the art critic Théodore Duret,
who agreed to pose, as an experiment, in modern evening dress,
carrying (for colour's sake) a pink cloak, for Arrangement en
couleur chair et noir: Portrait de Théodore Duret (YMSM 252).
Duret mediated between the artist and the aristocratic Lady
Archibald Campbell, and thus saved Arrangement in Black: La Dame
au brodequin jaune – Portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell (YMSM
242), shown in the Chicago Columbian Exhibition in 1893.
Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate
(YMSM 315), painted in 1884, and showing the violinist spotlit on
stage, was exhibited in London, Hamburg, Paris and finally, in 1896,
Pittsburgh, where it was bought by the Carnegie Institute, the first
American public collection to acquire his work. Exhibiting at
International exhibitions in Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Munich, in
Chicago and Philadelphia, in Dublin, Glasgow and St. Petersburg, he
gained medals and honours.
In 1885 he delivered the 'Ten O'clock' lecture in Prince's Hall
(published in 1888), an eloquent exposition of his views on art and
artists. Stéphane Mallarmé translated it into French and introduced
Whistler to the Symbolist circle in Paris. Extensive correspondence
and subjects like Purple and Gold: Phryne the Superb! – Builder
of Temples (YMSM 490) document their growing friendship.
In 1886, the Society of British Artists in London, in need of
rejuvenation, risked electing Whistler as President. He set out
autocratically to reform the Society, revamping the galleries,
designing a 'velarium' to soften the light and direct it on the
pictures, rejecting sub-standard pictures, and inviting foreigners
like Waldo Storey, Alfred Stevens and Claude Monet to exhibit. The
Society revolted, and he was forced to resign.
Meanwhile, pastels, oils, drawings and watercolours – like the
atmospheric Nocturne in Grey and Gold – Piccadilly (M.862)
hung in three one-man exhibitions of 'Notes' – 'Harmonies' –
'Nocturnes' at Messrs Dowdeswells in 1884 and 1886 and at
Wunderlich's in New York in 1889. This gave Americans, like Howard
Mansfield, Howard Whittemore, and Charles L. Freer, the opportunity
to buy their first Whistlers. They flocked to his studio.
In 1888, Whistler married Beatrix, widow of E. W. Godwin. An
artist and designer, she worked beside him, encouraging his pastels
of young models, like the Pettigrew sisters, and lithographs. Some
of his finest lithographs, like The Duet (W.64) of 1894, show
Beatrix at home in 110 rue du Bac in Paris. The most poignant,
By the Balcony (W.122) and The Siesta (W.124), were
drawn as she lay dying of cancer, during his lithography exhibition
at the Fine Art Society in 1895. She died in 1896, and her young
sister, Rosalind Birnie Philip, became Whistler's ward and inherited
Whistler's collection of letters and pamphlets on art, The
Gentle Art of Making Enemies, was published by William Heinemann
in 1890. Whistler's butterflies, a sting in their tails, match each
document. Another book recorded a lawsuit against Sir William Eden
in 1898 which resulted in a change to French law, giving artists
control over their work.
In 1896 Whistler was elected first President of the International
Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers. Joseph Pennell,
Whistler's friend and future biographer, was an active and
argumentative committee member. Independent artists from Europe and
America were invited to send work to their exhibitions, in 1898,
1899 and 1900, but Academicians were discouraged. The exhibitions
were sparely hung, coherent and effective. Whistler's own exhibits
were modest, fluidly-painted panels like Green and Silver: The
Great Sea (YMSM 518), and severely geometrical shop fronts like
Gold and Orange: The Neighbours (YMSM 423).
His last portraits, of Freer, the gambler Richard A. Canfield,
George W. Vanderbilt and of a young red-head model, Dorothy Seton,
were painted with the forceful brushwork and thin skin of paint, the
strong characterisation and subtle colour, that characterised his
In his last self-portrait, Brown and Gold (YMSM 440), the
pose was based on Velasquez' portrait of Pablo de Valladolid in the
Prado. In 1900 it hung in the American section of the Paris
Universal Exposition, but he continued to rework it until his death.
Painted with nervous flickering brushwork, serious and
introspective, it is a deeply moving work. Whistler died in London
on 17 July 1903.