James Abbott McNeill Whistler, was an American artist, active during the American Gilded Age and based primarily in the United Kingdom. He was averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting. His famous signature for his paintings was in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail.
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, James lived the first three years of his life in a modest house at 243 Worthen Street in Lowell. Today, the house is a museum dedicated to Whistler.
In 1842, his father was employed to work on a railroad in Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg to join his father a year later, the young Whistler took private art lessons, then enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts at age eleven. The young artist followed the traditional curriculum of drawing from plaster casts and occasional live models, revelled in the atmosphere of art talk with older peers, and pleased his parents with a first-class mark in anatomy.
In 1847-48, his family spent some time in London with relatives, while his father stayed in Russia. Whistler’s brother-in-law Francis Haden, a physician who was also an artist, spurred his interest in art and photography. Haden took Whistler to visit collectors and to lectures, and gave him a watercolour set with instruction.
Whistler already was imagining an art career. He began to collect books on art and he studied other artists’ techniques. When his portrait was painted by Sir William Boxall in 1848, the young Whistler exclaimed that the portrait was “very much like me and a very fine picture. Mr. Boxall is a beautiful colourist…It is a beautiful creamy surface, and looks so rich.”
Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855, rented a studio in the Latin Quarter, and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. Soon he had a French girlfriend, a dressmaker named Heloise. He studied traditional art methods for a short time at the Ecole Impériale and at the atelier of Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre. The latter was a great advocate of the work of Ingres, and impressed Whistler with two principles that he used for the rest of his career: line is more important than colour and that black is the fundamental colour of tonal harmony.
In 1861, after returning to Paris for a time, Whistler painted his first famous work, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. The portrait of his mistress and business manager Joanna Hiffernan was created as a simple study in white; however, others saw it differently. The critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary thought the painting an allegory of a new bride’s lost innocence. Others linked it to Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, a popular novel of the time, or various other literary sources. In England, some considered it a painting in the Pre-Raphaelite manner.
In 1866, Whistler decided to visit Valparaíso, Chile, a journey that has puzzled scholars, although Whistler stated that he did it for political reasons. That journey produced Whistler’s first three nocturnal paintings—which he termed “moonlights” and later re-titled as “nocturnes”—night scenes of the harbour painted with a blue or light green palette.
By 1871, Whistler returned to portraits and soon produced his most famous painting, the nearly monochromatic full-length figure entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, but usually (and incorrectly) referred to as Whistler’s Mother. A model failed to appear one day, according to a letter from his mother, so Whistler turned to his mother and suggested that he do her portrait. In his typically slow and experimental way, at first he had her stand, but that proved too tiring so the famous seated pose was adopted. It took dozens of sittings to complete.
Whistler’s approach to portraiture in his late maturity was described by one of his sitters, Arthur J. Eddy, who posed for the artist in 1894:
He worked with great rapidity and long hours, but he used his colours thin and covered the canvas with innumerable coats of paint. The colours increased in depth and intensity as the work progressed. At first the entire figure was painted in greyish-brown tones, with very little flesh colour, the whole blending perfectly with the greyish-brown of the prepared canvas; then the entire background would be intensified a little; then the figure made a little stronger; then the background, and so on from day to day and week to week, and often from month to month…. And so the portrait would really grow, really develop as an entirety, very much as a negative under the action of the chemicals comes out gradually—light, shadows, and all from the very first faint indications to their full values. It was as if the portrait were hidden within the canvas and the master by passing his wands day after day over the surface evoked the image.
Whistler received a commission to do twelve etchings in Venice. He eagerly accepted the assignment, and arrived in the city with girlfriend Maud, taking rooms in a dilapidated palazzo they shared with other artists, including John Singer Sargent. He wrote to a friend, “I have learned to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived, and which, if I bring back with me as I propose, will far more than compensate for all annoyances delays & vexations of spirit.”
The three-month assignment stretched to fourteen months. During this exceptionally productive period, Whistler finished over fifty etchings, several nocturnes, some watercolour’s, and over 100 pastels—illustrating both the moods of Venice and its fine architectural details.
During his life, he affected two generations of artists, in Europe and in the United States. Whistler had significant contact and exchanged ideas and ideals with Realist, Impressionist, and Symbolist painters. Famous protégés for a time included Walter Sickert and writer Oscar Wilde. His Tonalism had a profound effect on many American artists, including John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase and Willis Seaver Adams (whom he befriended in Venice). Another significant influence was upon Arthur Frank Mathews, whom Whistler met in Paris in the late 1890s. Mathews took Whistler’s Tonalism to San Francisco, spawning a broad use of that technique among turn-of-the-century California artists. As American critic Charles Caffin wrote in 1907:
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.
In the final seven years of his life, Whistler did some minimalist seascapes in watercolour and a final self-portrait in oil. He corresponded with his many friends and colleagues. Whistler founded an art school in 1898, but his poor health and infrequent appearances led to its closure in 1901. He died in London on July 17, 1903. He is buried in Chiswick Old Cemetery in west London, adjoining St Nicholas Church, Chiswick.