James A. McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

James A. McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

James McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834. He spent five years of his childhood in S1. Petersburg, Russia, where his father, George Washington Whistler, a railroad engineer, was employed in the building of the St. Petersburg-Moscow railroad. The artist’s mother, Anna Matilda McNeill, was a devout Christian, whom he admired all his life. In his early manhood he exchanged his middle name ‘Abbott’ for her maiden name ‘McNeill’. In St. Petersburg young James received his first art lessons in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts.

In 1849, Major Whistler died and his wife decided to bring her family to their homeland, settling at Pomfret, Connecticut, where James attended the local school until, in 185l , he entered West Point, the famous military academy. West Point at the time was an exclusive school, to which cadets were selected by congressmen. No doubt that the fact that his father had trained at West Point secured Whistler’s entry. Never becoming a military man, Whistler remembered the three years spent at the academy with affection. Among all subjects Whistler succeeded only in drawing, special difficulties were caused by chemistry, which at last became the reason of his ejection from the academy. ‘Had silicon been a gas,’ He later declared, ‘I would have been a general-major’.

West Point was followed by a brief period of employment in the United States Geodetic and Coast Survey offices in Washington. In 1855, Whistler arrived in Paris, the artistic capital of Europe, with the intention of becoming an artist. The art of Gustave Courbet attracted his attention and admiration, but in his choice of teacher Whistler was very conventional. After a short period at the Ecole Imperiale et Speciale de Dessin, he enrolled at the studio of Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. At Gleyre’s, Whistler became part of the ‘Paris Gang’, a group of young English artists that included Edward Poynter, Thomas Armstrong, Thomas Lamont and George du Maurier.

In 1858, Whistler set out on a tour of Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland, during which he made a set of etchings Twelve Etchings from Nature, better known as the French Set. Praise of the work encouraged Whistler to continue etching. Between 1858 and 1863 he produced 80 plates. In 1859, Whistler set to work on his first major painting, At the Piano, his first masterpiece, which marked the end of his student years and the onset of artistic independence. The work was rejected by the Salon. The same year Whistler moved to London, which remained his base ofoperations until 1892. From there Whistler made frequent visits abroad. In 1866, Whistler traveled to South America where the Chileans were engaged in a war against Spain, he kept a journal of naval and military developments but avoided involvement in any fighting.

In 1877, Whistler began to paint a series of ‘Nocturnes’ based on the Thames views at night. One of his most famous works in this series in Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, originally called ‘Moonlights.’ His patron, Frederick Leyland, an enthusiastic pianist, suggested the term ‘Nocturne.’ Whistler replied, ‘I can’t thank you too much for the name Nocturne as the title for my Moonlights. You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics, and consequent pleasure to me; besides it is really so charming, and does so poetically say all I want to say and no more than I wish.’

Art happens – no hovel is safe from it, no prince can depend on it, the vastest intelligence cannot bring it about. – James Whistler

Critics were outraged. John Ruskin, when seeing Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket and other night scenes at the opening exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, broke out in print: ‘I have seen and heard much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Whistler sued Ruskin for libel and won the trial. Whistler was awarded only a farthing damages.

In 1876 Whistler began the decoration of the famous Peacock Room owned by his patron Frederick Leyland. The artist and the patron quarreled bitterly over the room, and the quarrel grew into deep hatred. The loss of Leyland as a patron and the effect of Ruskin’s harsh criticism left Whistler in a bad financial position. In 1879, Whistler was declared bankrupt and left for Venice for the next 14 months. During that stay in Venice, he produced four oils, many etchings and almost 100 pastels.

After two successful one-man exhibitions at Dowdeswells in 1884 and 1886, Whistler’s reputation steadily began to mount. In 1884, he was invited to become a member of the Society of British Artists and two years later was elected its president.

An artist’s career always begins tomorrow. – James Whistler

In 1886, Whistler painted Harmony in Red: Lamplight. Portrait of Mrs. Beatrice Godwin. Her husband died in 1886 and two years later she became Whistler’s wife. The daughter of the sculptor John Bernie Philip, she was also an artist in her own right and Whistler frequently turned to her for advice while painting his portraits. With Beatrice, Whistler moved to Paris in1892. She died four years later, in 1896. Meanwhile Whistler’s reputation had soared. In 1891, Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1: The Artist’s Mother was acquired by the French State and that same year Glasgow Corporation paid a thousand guineas for the Portrait of Thomas Carlyle. Having exhibited at several important international exhibitions, Whistler was awarded honors by Munich, Amsterdam and Paris. Whistler died in 1903 in London.

“James McNeill Whistler’s position in the history of British art is as paradoxical as his personality: flamboyant dandy and wit, he was also a serious craftsman, tirelessly dedicated to the perfection of his art. Having learned much from his French and English contemporaries, he nevertheless emerged as an isolated figure who attracted followers but established no leading style.”

Frances Spalding