James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American-born, British-based artist active during the American Gilded Age. He was averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting, and was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake”. His famous signature for his paintings was in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail. The symbol was apt, for it combined both aspects of his personality—his art was characterized by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative. Finding a parallel between painting and music, Whistler entitled many of his paintings “arrangements”, “harmonies”, and “nocturnes”, emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. His most famous painting is “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1”, commonly known as Whistler’s Mother, the revered and oft-parodied portrait of motherhood. Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his artistic theories and his friendships with leading artists and writers.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 10, 1834 – July 17, 1903) 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, and was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake”. His famous signature for his paintings was in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail. The symbol was apt, for it combined both aspects of his personality—his art was characterized by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative. Finding a parallel between painting and music, Whistler entitled many of his paintings “arrangements”, “harmonies”, and “nocturnes”, emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. His most famous painting is “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” (1871), commonly known as Whistler’s Mother, the revered and oft-parodied portrait of motherhood. Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his artistic theories and his friendships with leading artists and writers.
James Abbott Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on July 10, 1834, the first child of Anna Matilda McNeill and George Washington Whistler. His father was a railroad engineer, and Anna was his second wife. 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. During the Ruskin trial , Whistler claimed St. Petersburg, Russia, as his birthplace, declaring, “I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell.”
In 1837, the Whistlers moved from Lowell to Stonington, Connecticut, where George Whistler worked for the Stonington Railroad. Sadly, during this period, three of George and Anna Whistlers’ children died in infancy.
In 1839, the Whistlers’ fortunes improved considerably when George Whistler received the appointment that would make his fortune and fame – that of chief engineer for the Boston & Albany Railroad. Thus, the family moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, then one of the United States’ most prosperous cities, where they constructed a mansion in a posh district. (The Whistler Mansion, as it came to be known, stood at the corner of Chestnut and Edwards Streets in Springfield, where currently the Wood Museum of History stands.) The Whistlers lived in Springfield until they left the United States in late 1842.
Nicholas I of Russia learned of George Whistler’s ingenuity in engineering the Boston & Albany Railroad, and offered Whistler a position in 1842 engineering a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow. In the winter of 1842, the Whistlers moved from Springfield to St. Petersburg.
In later years, James Whistler played up his mother’s connection to the American South and its roots, and presented himself as an impoverished Southern aristocrat (although it remains unclear to what extent he truly sympathized with the Southern cause during the American Civil War). After her death, he adopted her maiden name, using it as an additional middle name. Young Whistler was a moody child prone to fits of temper and insolence, who—after bouts of ill-health—often drifted into periods of laziness. His parents discovered in his early youth that drawing often settled him down and helped focus his attention.
Russia and England
Beginning 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, reveled in the atmosphere of art talk with older peers, and pleased his parents with a first-class mark in anatomy. In 1844, he met the noted artist Sir William Allan, who came to Russia with a commission to paint a history of the life of Peter the Great. Whistler’s mother noted in her diary, “the great artist remarked to me ‘Your little boy has uncommon genius, but do not urge him beyond his inclination.'”
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 watercolor 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.” In his blossoming enthusiasm for art, at fifteen, he informed his father by letter of his future direction, “I hope, dear father, you will not object to my choice.” His father, however, died from cholera at the age of forty-nine, and the Whistler family moved back to his mother’s hometown of Pomfret, Connecticut. His art plans remained vague and his future uncertain. The family lived frugally and managed to get by on a limited income. His cousin reported that Whistler at that time was “slight, with a pensive, delicate face, shaded by soft brown curls…he had a somewhat foreign appearance and manner, which, aided by natural abilities, made him very charming, even at that age.”
Whistler was sent to Christ Church Hall School with his mother’s hopes that he would become a minister. Whistler was seldom without his sketchbook and was popular with his classmates for his caricatures. However, it became clear that a career in religion did not suit him, so he applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father had taught drawing and other relatives had attended. He was admitted to the highly selective institution in July 1851 on the strength of his family name, despite his extreme nearsightedness and poor health history. However, during his three years there, his grades were barely satisfactory, and he was a sorry sight at drill and dress, known as “Curly” for his hair length which exceeded regulations. Whistler bucked authority, spouted sarcastic comments, and racked up demerits. Colonel Robert E Lee was the West Point Superintendent and, after considerable indulgence toward Whistler, he had no choice but to dismiss the young cadet. Whistler’s major accomplishment at West Point was learning drawing and map making from American artist Robert W. Weir.
His departure from West Point seems to have been precipitated by a failure in a chemistry exam where he was asked to describe silicon and began by saying, “Silicon is a gas.” As he himself put it later: “If silicon were a gas, I would have been a general one day”. However, a separate anecdote suggests misconduct in drawing class as the reason for Whistler’s departure.
After West Point, Whistler worked as draftsman mapping the entire U.S. coast for military and maritime purposes. He found the work boring and he was frequently late or absent. He spent much of his free time playing billiards and idling about, was always broke, and although a charmer, had little acquaintance with women. After it was discovered that he was drawing sea serpents, mermaids, and whales on the margins of the maps, he was transferred to the etching division of the U. S. Coast Survey. He lasted there only two months, but he learned the etching technique which later proved valuable to his career.
At this point, Whistler firmly decided that art would be his future. For a few months he lived in Baltimore with a wealthy friend, Tom Winans, who even furnished Whistler with a studio and some spending cash. The young artist made some valuable contacts in the art community and also sold some early paintings to Winans. Whistler turned down his mother’s suggestions for other more practical careers and informed her that with money from Winans, he was setting out to further his art training in Paris. Whistler never returned to the United States.
Art study in France
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 Héloise. 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 color and that black is the fundamental color of tonal harmony. Twenty years later, the Impressionists would largely overthrow this philosophy, banning black and brown as “forbidden colors” and emphasizing color over form. Whistler preferred self-study (including copying at the Louvre) and enjoying the café life. While letters from home reported his mother’s efforts at economy, Whistler spent freely, sold little or nothing in his first year in Paris, and was in steady debt. To relieve the situation, he took to painting and selling copies he made at the Louvre and finally moved to cheaper quarters. As luck would have it, the arrival in Paris of George Lucas, another rich friend, helped stabilize Whistler’s finances for a while. In spite of a financial respite, the winter of 1857 was a difficult one for Whistler. His poor health, made worse by excessive smoking and drinking, laid him low.
Conditions improved during the summer of 1858. Whistler recovered and traveled with fellow artist Ernest Delannoy through France and the Rhineland. He later produced a group of etchings known as “The French Set”, with the help of French master printer Auguste Delâtre. During that year, he painted his first self-portrait, Portrait of Whistler with Hat, a dark and thickly rendered work reminiscent of Rembrandt. But the event of greatest consequence that year was his friendship with Henri Fantin-Latour, whom he met at the Louvre. Through him, Whistler was introduced to the circle of Gustave Courbet, which included Carolus-Duran (later the teacher of John Singer Sargent), Alphonse Legros, and Édouard Manet.
Also in this group was Charles Baudelaire, whose ideas and theories of “modern” art influenced Whistler. Baudelaire challenged artists to scrutinize the brutality of life and nature and to portray it faithfully, avoiding the old themes of mythology and allegory.Théophile Gautier, one of the first to explore translational qualities among art and music, may have inspired Whistler to view art in musical terms.
Reflecting the banner of realism of his adopted circle, Whistler painted his first exhibited work, La Mere Gerard in 1858. He followed it by painting At the Piano in 1859 in London, which he adopted as his home, while also regularly visiting friends in France. At the Piano is a portrait composed of his niece and her mother in their London music room, an effort which clearly displayed his talent and promise. A critic wrote, ” a recklessly bold manner and sketchiness of the wildest and roughest kind, a genuine feeling for colour and a splendid power of composition and design, which evince a just appreciation of nature very rare amongst artists.”The work is unsentimental and effectively contrasts the mother in black and the daughter in white, with other colors kept restrained in the manner advised by his teacher Gleyre. It was displayed at the Royal Academy the following year, and in many exhibits to come.
In a second painting executed in the same room, Whistler demonstrated his natural inclination toward innovation and novelty by fashioning a genre scene with unusual composition and foreshortening. It later was re-titled Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room. This painting also demonstrated Whistler’s ongoing work pattern, especially with portraits: a quick start, major adjustments, a period of neglect, then a final flurry to the finish.
After a year in London, as counterpoint to his 1858 French set, in 1860, he produced another set of etchings called Thames Set, as well as some early impressionistic work, including The Thames in Ice. At this stage, he was beginning to establish his technique of tonal harmony based on a limited, pre-determined palette.
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 the painting, Hiffernan holds a lily in her left hand and stands upon a bear skin rug (interpreted by some to represent masculinity and lust) with the bear’s head staring menacingly at the viewer. The portrait was refused for exhibition at the conservative Royal Academy, but was shown in a private gallery under the title The Woman in White. In 1863 it was shown at the Salon des Refusés in Paris, an event sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III for the exhibition of works rejected from the Salon.
Whistler’s painting was widely noticed, although upstaged by Manet’s more shocking painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. Countering criticism by traditionalists, Whistler’s supporters insisted that the painting was “an apparition with a spiritual content” and that it epitomized his theory that art should be concerned essentially with the arrangement of colors in harmony, not with a literal portrayal of the natural world.
Two years later, Whistler painted another portrait of Hiffernan in white, this time displaying his newfound interest in Asian motifs, which he entitled The Little White Girl. His Lady of the Land Lijsen and The Golden Screen, both completed in 1864, again portray his mistress, in even more emphatic Asian dress and surroundings. During this period Whistler became close to Gustave Courbet, the early leader of the French realist school, but when Hiffernan modeled in the nude for Courbet, Whistler became enraged and his relationship with Hiffernan began to fall apart. In January 1864, Whistler’s very religious and very proper mother arrived in London, upsetting her son’s bohemian existence and temporarily exacerbating family tensions. As he wrote to Henri Fantin-Latour, “General upheaval!! I had to empty my house and purify it from cellar to eaves.” He also immediately moved Hiffernan to another location.
In 1866, Whistler decided to visit Valparaíso, Chile, a journey that has puzzled scholars, although Whistler stated that he did it for political reasons. Chile was at war with Spain and perhaps Whistler thought it a heroic struggle of a small nation against a larger one, but no evidence supports that theory. What the journey did produce was Whistler’s first three nocturnal paintings—which he termed “moonlights” and later re-titled as “nocturnes”—night scenes of the harbor painted with a blue or light green palette. After he returned to London, he painted several more nocturnes over the next ten years, many of the River Thames and of Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure park famous for its frequent fireworks displays, which presented a novel challenge to paint. In his maritime nocturnes, Whistler used highly thinned paint as a ground with lightly flicked color to suggest ships, lights, and shore line. Some of the Thames paintings also show compositional and thematic similarities with the Japanese prints of Hiroshige.
In 1872, Whistler credited his patron Frederick Leyland, an amateur musician devoted to Chopin, for his musically inspired titles.
I say I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a 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 that I want to say and no more than I wish!
At that point, Whistler painted another self-portrait and entitled it Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter (c. 1872), and he also began to re-title many of his earlier works using terms associated with music, such as a “nocturne”, “symphony”, “harmony”, “study” or “arrangement”, to emphasize the tonal qualities and the composition and to de-emphasize the narrative content. Whistler’s nocturnes were among his most innovative works. Furthermore, his submission of several nocturnes to art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel after the Franco-Prussian War gave Whistler the opportunity to explain his evolving “theory in art” to artists, buyers, and critics in France. His good friend Fantin-Latour, growing more reactionary in his opinions, especially in his negativity concerning the emerging Impressionist school, found Whistler’s new works surprising and confounding. Fantin-Latour admitted, “I don’t understand anything there; it’s bizarre how one changes. I don’t recognize him anymore.” Their relationship was nearly at an end by then, but they continued to share opinions in occasional correspondence. When Edgar Degas invited Whistler to exhibit with the first show by the Impressionists in 1874, Whistler turned down the invitation, as did Manet, and some scholars attributed this in part to Fantin-Latour’s influence on both men.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 fragmented the French art community. Many artists took refuge in England, joining Whistler, including Camille Pissarro and Monet, while Manet and Degas stayed in France. Like Whistler, Monet and Pissarro both focused their efforts on views of the city, and it is likely that Whistler was exposed to the evolution of Impressionism founded by these artists and that they had seen his nocturnes. Whistler was drifting away from Courbet’s “damned realism” and their friendship had wilted, as had his liaison with Joanna Hiffernan.
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 produced numerous etchings, lithographs, and dry-points. His lithographs, some drawn on stone, others drawn directly on “lithographie” paper, are perhaps half as numerous as his etchings. Some of the lithographs are of figures slightly draped; two or three of the very finest are of Thames subjects—including a “nocturne” at Limehouse; while others depict the Faubourg Saint-Germain in Paris, and Georgian churches in Soho and Bloomsbury in London.
The etchings include portraits of family, mistresses, and intimate street scenes in London and Venice. Whistler gained an enormous reputation as an etcher. Martin Hardie wrote “there are some who set him beside Rembrandt, perhaps above Rembrandt, as the greatest master of all time. Personally, I prefer to regard them as the Jupiter and Venus, largest and brightest among the planets in the etcher’s heaven.” He took great care over the printing of his etchings and the choice of paper. At the beginning and end of his career, he placed great emphasis on cleanness of line, though in a middle period he experimented more with inking and the use of plate-tone.
The Peacock Room
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room is Whistler’s masterpiece of interior decorative mural art. He painted the paneled room in a rich and unified palette of brilliant blue-greens with over-glazing and metallic gold leaf. Painted in 1876–77, it now is considered a high example of the Anglo-Japanese style. Unhappy with the first decorative result of the original scheme designed by Thomas Jeckyll (1827-1881), Frederick Leyland left the room in Whistler’s care to make minor changes, “to harmonize” the room whose primary purpose was to display Leyland’s china collection. Whistler let his imagination run wild, however: “Well, you know, I just painted on. I went on—without design or sketch—putting in every touch with such freedom…And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy of it.” He completely painted over 16th-century Cordoba leather wall coverings first brought to Britain by Catherine of Aragon that Leyland had paid £1,000 for.
Having acquired the centerpiece of the room, Whistler’s painting of The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, American industrialist and aesthete Charles Lang Freer purchased the entire room in 1904 from Leyland’s heirs, including Leyland’s daughter and her husband, the British artist Val Prinsep. Freer then had the contents of the Peacock Room installed in his Detroit mansion. After Freer’s death in 1919, the Peacock Room was permanently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The gallery opened to the public in 1923. A large painted caricature by Whistler of Leyland portraying him as an anthropomorphic peacock playing a piano, and entitled The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre – a pun on Leyland’s fondness for frilly shirt fronts – is now in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.