James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Artist Biography

The American that transformed art in London and Paris

By William Tylee Ranney Abbott

James Abbott McNeil Whistler worked in an area of great transformation in Western Art. His struggle between academic realism and early Impressionist tendencies towards abstraction was both controversial and enlightening. Whistler, like few other American painters, stamped his winged mark on the development of art in the Western world.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834, Whistler was the first child of George Washington Whistler, a civil engineer. Three years after Whistler’s birth, the family moved to Stonington, Connecticut and later to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1840, where ‘Major’ Whistler was appointed the chief engineer for the Western Railroad of Massachusetts. In 1842, Major Whistler secured an advisory position in Russia for the construction of a railroad between St. Petersburg and Moscow.

St. Petersburg played an important role in the early development of Whistler’s career, so much so that he later declared it his actual ‘birthplace’. It was here that Whistler received his first artistic tuition. In 1845, the aspiring artist convinced his religiously zealous mother and professionally occupied father to enroll him at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. Although Whistler showed exceptional promises, receiving a ‘first’ grade in his very first year, continual bouts with rheumatic fever and his parents’ desire for a more structured education resulted in his withdrawal from the Academy. It was during one of his attacks of rheumatic fever that Whistler was first exposed to the work of the British painter William Hogarth, whose accurate depictions of gritty streets of London were striking in contrast to the strict classical training he received at the Academy. The gift of a volume of Hogarth’s engravings must have peaked his interest in both London and engraving. During the summer of the same year, 1847, Whistler traveled to the United Kingdom with his mother and siblings where they attended the wedding of his half-sister. Soon after returning to Russia, Whistler found himself back in England where he visited his sister and new brother-in-law, the surgeon and etcher Francis Seymour Haden. Hayden’s own engravings, his collection of Rembrandt engravings, and his interest to photography proved visibly influential on Whistler later compositions.1 Whistler was also surely influenced by a visit to see the Raphael cartoons at Hampton Court with the British portrait painter Sir William Boxall.2 Unfortunately, Whistler’s experience in Europe and Russia was cut short by the death of his father, which resulted in the Whistler family’s return to America. The family settled in Pomfret, Connecticut, where the young Whistler boys spent two years at Christ Church Hall before James attended West Point.

Although Whistler’s success at West Point was short lived, in June 1854 he was released because of his poor performance in chemistry, however, he excelled in drawing and received a top grade. By November he had secured a position in the drawing division of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, DC. This position would have been highly important in teaching the Whistler the basics of etching and draftsmanship, but was unable to hold his attention for long and the young artist soon set his sites on Europe.

In 1855, Whistler left the US and, after a short stay with his sister in London, arrived in France where he enrolled at the École Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin. The following year Whistler joined the atelier of the neo-classicist Charles Gleyre and met Henri Martin, Henri Oulevey, and George Du Maurier, among others. For the next few years, Whistler journeyed between Paris and London attending exhibitions, drawing from paintings at the Musée du Louvre, and making connections in the 19th century European art world. In 1858, after traveling to Northern France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Rhineland with his artist friend, Ernest Delaney, he began work on his first serious group of etchings, French Set. At this time, Whistler also befriended Henri Fantin-Latour who brought him to the Café Molière and introduced him to other prominent French artists, including, Alphonse Legros, Carolus-Duran, Zacharie Astruc, and eventually Gustave Courbet. Towards the end of 1858, Whistler travelled to London where he began work on his first major painting, At The Piano (1858-9; The Taft Museum, Cincinnati),, and published his complete French Set.

The next year, 1859, after a short trip back to Paris, he again returned to London where he rented rooms near the working docks. It was during this time that he worked on his Thames Set etchings and visited the Royal Academy where two of his etchings were being exhibited, with his friend Fantin-Latour. The following year he shared a studio with Du Maurier, and worked on Wapping (1860-4; The National Gallery of Art, Washington), the sitter for which (Joanna Hiffernan) later became his lover and primary model.

During the 1860s, Whistler continued to shuttle back and forth between Paris and London and was continually exposed to the influences of Fantin-Latour, Edouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.3 An attack of rheumatic fever in 1861 forced him to follow doctor’s orders and spend time on the coast of Brittany where he painted his first seascapes, including The Coast of Brittany (1861; The Wadsworth Atheneum, Harford). It was also during this year that he began work on one of his most important early works, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862; The National Gallery of Art, Washington). At this same time his etchings were also exhibited in a Paris gallery where they commanded the attention and praise of Charles Baudelaire. In 1863, Whistler’s The White Girl was rejected from the Salon, but became one of the most controversial works in the Salon des Refusés, along with Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1863, Musee d’Orsay, Paris). There, it attracted commentary from critics proclaiming it fit neither the Realist nor illustrative standards of period painting, but yet, it was simple and fantastical at the same time, mimicking in painting the then popular works of Baudelaire, Theophile Gautier and Edgar Allan Poe.4

It was during the 1860s that Whistler was influenced by Asian themes and began to include Japanese images in a number of his works. Whistler’s reverence for Japan was equally felt by other artists of the time, including James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Edgar Degas, Fantin-Latour, and Monet, who all frequented the same small store dedicated to Japanese objects.5 One of his most well known Asian-inspired works, Variations in Fleshcolour and Green: The Balcony (1864: The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington), was begun in 1864 and finished in 1870.

In 1865, Whistler continued to exhibit works at the Royal Academy, befriended the British painter Albert Moore, and travelled with Courbet to Trouville. During 1867, he exhibited Symphony in White, No. 3 (1865-7; The University of Birmingham, Birmingham) at the Royal Academy, two paintings at the Salon, and four at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Whistler also began to experience financial success, especially with his introduction to Frederick Richards Leyland, a wealthy Liverpool shipowner, who commissioned him to paint his entire family. This period of Whistler’s life was occupied by the international artistic debate between Classicists, Romantics, and Realists. In an effort to make sense of the ongoing debate, the artist tested different techniques, including a return to the foundations of drawing and studied the watercolors of Thomas Gainsborough. As these techniques matured, they manifested themselves in simplified compositions, limited colors, and lowered tones, resulting in a combination of realism and formalism, later termed Aestheticism.6

By the 1870s, Whistler had begun to experiment on a series of paintings with flower themes and successfully exhibited his Variations in Fleshcolour and Green: The Balcony at the Royal Academy. Whistler published his Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames in 1871, as well as began work on his Nocturnes, and his well-known Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (1871; Musee d’Orsay, Paris). Whistlers’ portrait of his mother was accepted to the Royal Academy, but not without a threat from Sir Boxall to resign if it was rejected. Now in his mature career, with important exhibitions, Whistler began to receive various commissions from prominent members of society, including the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. In 1874, Whistler was given his first solo show, at the Flemish Gallery in Pall Mall, London, where he exhibited thirteen oil paintings, thirty-six drawings, fifty etchings, and one painted screen. In September of 1875, the artist painted his famous Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875; Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit) and exhibited it at the Dudley Gallery in London.

Becoming increasingly involved with gallery exhibitions, and his career in general, Whistler began to manage everything from his painting, to the attire of the guards in the rooms where his art was exhibited. This propensity to manage every detail later created serious rifts with his colleagues at the Society of British Artists.7 However, this interest also culminated in Whistler’s main focus of 1876, his Harmony in Blue and Gold; The Peacock Room (1877; The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington), a room in the Leyland’s London home. Unfortunately, while a great achievement, this painting caused breakdown of this previously fruitful relationship, due to a dispute over its quality, its price, and the overly-public nature of the commission.

In 1877, Whistler exhibited at the newly opened Grosvenor Gallery in London, attracting the attention of John Ruskin who criticized the expressive nature of the work and its emphasis on ‘art for art’s sake’. Whistler did not take kindly to the published remarks and sued Ruskin for libel. The following year, Whistler exhibited The Coast of Brittany, at the first exhibition of the Society of American Artists in New York. By May of that year, 1878, Whistler publicly announced his aesthetic theories in the World, and stated that pictures were meant to be able to stand alone, on their own merit, and not depend on logic-based realist desires.8 At this time, Whistler had begun to feel the strain of his excessive lifestyle and was forced to sell a number of paintings, drawings, etchings, Japanese objects, and the contents of his London home at auction. In May, he declared bankruptcy, and, in an effort to deter his creditors, destroyed a large number of his works. Fortunately, he was able to obtain a commission from the Fine Art Society for twelve etchings and travelled to Venice, where he stayed for more than a year.

While in Venice he was exceptionally productive, and created some fifty etchings and over one hundred pastels. Much of this type of work, along with his delicate seascapes, is considered to be the height of Whistler’s art due to his ability to daringly capture, on a small small-scale, subtle nuances of light and aesthetics.9 In 1881, Whistler became friends with Oscar Wilde who credited him with being one of the greatest painters in London.10 The following year, Whistler met and adopted as a pupil and assistant, Walter Sickert. In 1883, his portrait of his mother received a medal at the Salon and was earnestly reviewed by Theodore Duret. Over the next few years, Whistler produced a number of small coastal watercolors and oils, thought by many, including his pupils Sickert and Mortimer Menpes, to be among his best work. Whistler’s most important public expression of his ideals in art, the Ten O’Clock lecture, was given in 1885.11 In August of that year, Whistler traveled to Belgium and Holland with the American artist William Merritt Chase to attend the International Exhibition in Amsterdam.

In 1886, Whistler was elected President of the Society of British Artists and set out to reform the organization. The very next year he produced a set of etchings in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, for which the Society of British Artists received a Royal Charter and became the Royal Society of British Artists. In late1888, he married Beatrice Godwin, the widow of his longtime friend and celebrated architect Edward William Godwin. The next year, 1889, Whistler exhibited a number of oils, watercolors, and pastels at Wunderlich’s Gallery in New York City, where his work attracted serious attention from American collectors, especially the industrialist Charles Lang Freer, Howard Mansfield, and Henry Osborne Havemeyer. Whistler also held dinners in Paris and London to celebrate a first-class medal from Munich and his Cross of St. Michael from Bavaria.

In 1891, Whistler saw his first painting purchased by a public institution; the Corporation of Glasgow paid 1,000 guineas for his portrait of Carlyle. By the end of the year, the Musée du Luxembourg purchased Whistler’s portrait of his mother for 4,000 francs. Although he continued to experience great praise, including becoming an Officer of the Legion d’Honneur in 1892, Whistler soon found himself unable to fulfill the amount of commissions requested of him. As a result, many of his earlier works began to change hands for considerable sums throughout the United Kingdom, which upset Whistler and drove him to favor patrons in the US. The following year, 1893, Whistler exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where a one of his works was purchased by the Wilstach Collection and became the first work in an American public collection. While the next year contained even more accolades, the artist’s health began to decline.

From 1895 until 1900, Whistler worked on a self-portrait, which, like many of his other works, mimicked the style of one of his role models, Diego Rodriquez de Silva y Velazquez.12 For the next few years, the Whistler travelled back and forth between Paris and London, at one point even renting a studio from John Singer Sargent. In 1896, Mrs. Beatrice Whistler died of cancer, which caused Whistler to fall into a negative emotional state. Still, his work continued to be exhibited widely, including at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh where one of his portraits was purchased. In 1897, he attempted to improve his financial standing by establishing the Company of the Butterfly to sell his works, but the company only operated for a few years and was largely unsuccessful. Although he continued to suffer from reoccurring illness throughout his late career, he managed to remain artistically productive and was elected chairman of the executive council of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers. That organization held its first exhibition, which included works by Monet, Manet, Rodin, Sisley, Vuillard, and a number of works by Whistler himself.

During the 1900s, the artist continued to travel and paint extensively, from Holland to Dublin, and at the advice of his doctors, in Algiers and Tangiers. By 1901, Whistler had sold off most of his interests in Paris and moved permanently to the United Kingdom. In this year, he also continued work for Freer and George W. Vanderbilt, and additionally for Richard Albert Canfield. Finally, in 1903, after receiving his last accolade, an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Glasgow, James Abbott McNeill Whistler passed away on July 17. Whistler was buried in Chiswick Cemetery in London, where his funeral precession included Theodore Duret, Sir James Guthrie, John Lavery, Edwin Austin Abbey, George Vanderbilt, and Charles Lang Freer. In the two years following his death, major exhibitions were held in his honor at the Copley Society in Boston, Massachusetts, the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers in London, and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Today, the work of James Abbott McNeil Whistler continues to be exhibited by some of the world’s most prestigious institutions. The painter was one of the most important and influential artists of the nineteenth century. His work served as a critical bridge between the academic paintings of the period and the free flowing, plein air works of the early Impressionist movement. Today, his watercolors, etchings, and pastels remain highly sought after objects of American art.

II. Chronology

1834 Born in Lowell, Massachusetts to the civil engineer Major George Washington Whistler and Anna Matilda McNeil
1843 Moves to St. Petersburg, Russia where his father was a railroad consultant
1845 Attends drawing classes at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg
1847 While sick with rheumatic fever received William Hogarth’s engravings as a gift, travels to England for sisters marriage to Francis Seymour Haden
1849 Visits sister and husband in London, sees Raphael cartoons at Hampton Court, father dies and family moves to London, family moves to Pomfret, Connecticut
1851 Entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, adds mother’s maiden name to his own
1854 Discharged from West Point for poor work in chemistry, while excelling in drawing, worked etching maps and topographical plans for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, Washington, DC
1855 Leaves the Coast Survey, obtains visa to study in France, stays for one month with sister in London, registers for classes at Ecole Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin in Paris
1858 Works on first set of etchings, meets Fantin-Latour and Manet, begins work on At the Piano
1859 At the Piano rejected from the Salon, moves to London docklands and begins work on Wapping
1860 Paints on the coast of Brittany, etchings attract the attention of Baudelaire
1862 Stays in Chelsea and meets members of the Pre-Raphaelites, befriends Rossetti
1863 The White Girl is rejected from the Salon but exhibited at the Salon des Refusés
1864 Influenced by Orientalism and paints Rose and Silver: La Princesse du Pays de Porcelaine and The Gold Screen
1866 Travels to Chile, paints landscapes and first night works
1867 Moves to London, exhibits at the Salon, Royal Academy, and the Universal Exposition in Paris
1871 Publishes the Thames Set, paints Arrangement in Gray and Black: The Artist’s Mother
1874 First one-man show at the Flemish Gallery in London, meets Maud Franklin
1876 Begins work on the Peacock Room for Leyland
1877 Completes Peacock Room, The Falling Rocket is exhibited at the Grosvnor Gallery, sues Ruskin for libel
1879 Maud McNeill Whistler Franklin born, declares bankruptcy, leaves for Venice to complete commission from the Fine Arts Society
1881 Mother dies, meets Oscar Wilde, exhibits Venice works
1883 Exhibits at the Fine Art Society, The Artist’s Mother wins medal at the Salon de Paris
1884 Elected member of the Royal Society of British Artists
1885 Delivers Ten O’Clock lecture in London, travels to Belgium and Holland with William Merritt Chase
1886 Elected President of the Society of British Artis, later becomes Royal Society
1888 Marries Beatrix Godwin, produces Renaissance Set, elected honorary member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Munich
1889 Exhibits in New York City, receives the Cross of St. Michael
1891 The Artist’s Mother is bought by the Museum of Luxembourg
1893 Exhibits at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Philadelphia, has first work purchased by public US institution
1896 Mrs. Beatrice Whistler dies of cancer, Whistler’s melancholy drives away friends
1897 Established the Company of the Butterfly, with limited success, elected Chairman of the executive committee of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers
1901 Exhibits at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers, moves permanently to London
1903 Dies on July 17th

III. Collections

Academy of Arts, Honolulu, HI
The Art Institute of Chicago, IL
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, England
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA
The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University,
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
The Frick Collection, New York City, NY
Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington CT
Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, Scotland
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY
Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France
Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, Scotland
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Holland
Taft Museum, Cincinnati, OH
Tate Gallery, London, England

IV. Exhibitions

1858 Salon de Paris, France
1860-65, 67, 70, 72 Royal Academy, London, England
1865 Salon de Paris, France
1867 Salon de Paris, France, Royal Academy, England, and Universal Exposition, Paris
1878 Society of American Artists, New York City, NY
1880 Fine Art Society, London, England
1883 Fine Art Society, Salon de Paris
1884 Societé des XX, Brussels, Belgium
1887 Exposition Internationale de Peinture at the Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, France
1888 Third International Kunst-Ausstellung, Munich, Germany
1889 International Exhibition, Amsterdam
1890 Salon de Paris, France, Brussels Salon, Belgium
1892 Societé Nationale des Beaux-Arts, France, World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, International Kunst-Ausstellung, Munich.
1893 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia
1895 Esposizione Internazionale, Venice Biennale, Italy
1896 Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA, Society of Portrait Painters, London, England
1901 International Exhibition of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers
1904 Copley Society, Boston, Massachusetts
1905 International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers, London, England, the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France

V. Memberships & Awards

1863 Gold Medal, The Hague, Netherlands
1884 Society of British Artists, London
1886 President of the Society of British Artists, London
1888 Second place medal at Third International Kunst-Ausstellung, Munich, Germany
1889 Cross of St. Michael, Bavaria, Gold Medal at the International Exhibition, Amsterdam
1892 Officer of the Legion d’Honneur, France, Gold Medal at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Gold Medal at the International Kunst-Asstellung, Munich
1894 Honorary Member of the Royal Scottish Watercolour Society, Temple Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1898 Chairman of the executive council, International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers, London, England
1900 Honorary Academician at the Academy of St. Luke, Rome, Italy
1901 Honorary Member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France
1903 Honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Glasgow, Scotland

VI. Notes

1 Denys Sutton, Whistler (London: Phaidon, 1966), pp. 9
2 Gordon Fleming, James Abbott McNeill Whistler: A Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), pp. 27-28
3 Elisabeth Luther Cary, The Works of James McNeill Whistler (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1971), pp. 13
4 Hillary Taylor. James McNeill Whistler. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978), pp. 27-28
5 Elisabeth Luther Cary, The Works of James McNeill Whistler (New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1971), pp. 56
6 Richard Dorment and Margaret F. Macdonald James McNeill Whistler (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995), pp. 16-18
7 David Park Curry, “Total Control: Whistler at an Exhibition,” in James McNeill Whistler A Reexamination, ed. Ruth E. Fine (Baltimore: Schneidereith & Sons, 1987), pp. 67-80
8 Gordon Fleming, James Abbott McNeill Whistler: A Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), pp. 176-177
9 Richard Dorment and Margaret F. Macdonald James McNeill Whistler (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995), pp. 19-20
10 Gordon Fleming, James Abbott McNeill Whistler: A Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), pp. 205
11 Denys Sutton, Whistler (London: Phaidon, 1966), pp. 51-57
12 Hillary Taylor. James McNeill Whistler. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978), pp. 131

VII. Suggested Resources

Cabana, Pierre. Whistler New York: Crown Publishing, Inc., 1994
Dorment, Richard and Macdonald, Margaret. James McNeill Whistler New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995
Fleming, Gordon. James Abbott McNeill Whistler: A Life New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991
Sutton, Denys. Whistler London: Phaidon, 1966
Taylor, Hillary. James McNeill Whistler New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978

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