The American painter, etcher, and lithographer James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) created a new set of esthetic principles, championed art for art's sake, and introduced a subtle style of painting in which atmosphere and mood predominated.
James McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Mass., on July 10, 1834, the son of Major George Whistler, a railroad engineer. In 1842 Czar Nicholas I of Russia invited Major Whistler to build a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow and offered the princely salary of $12, 000 a year. In St. Petersburg the family lived luxuriously, with several servants, and James and his brother had a governess and a Swedish tutor. Because French was the court language, the boys soon became fluent in it. On one occasion the Whistlers took a trip 15 miles out of St. Petersburg to Tsarkoe Selo. Here, in the palace built by Catherine the Great, there was a suite of apartments in the Chinese style containing many fine examples of Oriental porcelain. James was fascinated by this collection and later became a collector of blue-and-white porcelain.
James's interest in drawing, which had begun when he was 4, greatly increased during the years in Russia, and in 1845 he was enrolled in a drawing course at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. In 1849 Major Whistler died, and Mrs. Whistler returned to America with her sons, settling in Pomfret, Conn. James decided he wanted to go to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which his father had attended, and obtained an appointment in 1851. At West Point he stood first in the drawing course but was deficient in chemistry. Because he constantly broke the rules, he accumulated 218 demerits and as a result was dismissed in 1854.
After an unsuccessful apprenticeship with the Winaas Locomotive Works in Baltimore, Whistler obtained a job in Washington, D.C., with the Coast and Geodetic Survey. He was always late, often absent, and was the despair of his employer. However, he had the finest training in etching and learned the basic principles of printmaking.
With a $350-a-year inheritance from his father, Whistler went abroad to study art. He arrived in Paris in 1855 and at once threw himself into the bohemian life of the French students. He spent two years in the atelier of Charles Gabriel Gleyre but learned little from his master, who came only once a week to give perfunctory criticism. While copying in the Louvre in 1858, Whistler met Henri Fantin-Latour, who in turn introduced him to Alphonse Legros and other artists, including the great realist painter Gustave Courbet. In 1858 Whistler brought out Twelve Etchings from Nature, known as the French Set. The next year his first important painting, At the Piano, influenced by Fantin-Latour and Dutch 17th-century interiors, was rejected by the Paris Salon, although it was accepted by the Royal Academy in London in 1860.
Whistler settled in London, where he had relatives, but spent much time at an inn in Wapping, and his early Thames etchings and paintings were done in this area. He depicted people at ease in their own environment and his work never told a story or pointed a moral, which was very much against the trend of mid-Victorian England. He was already anticipating the concept of "art for art's sake."
Whistler's painting Wapping (1861) shows the influence of Courbet's realism. One of the figures in the foreground is the redheaded Irish beauty Joanna Hiffernan, known as Jo, who became both Whistler's model and mistress. He painted her as The White Girl (1862), standing in a white dress, against a white background, with her red hair over her shoulder. The figure is medieval in feeling with a remoteness and introspective gaze that place it close to the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Whistler knew their work; he had met Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1862 and was decidely influenced by the Pre-Rapahelites at this time. Although The White Girl was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1862 and the Paris Salon of 1863, it was a sensation at the Salon des Refusés, admired by artists though laughed at by the public.
In 1863 Whistler leased a house in the Chelsea section of London, where he set up housekeeping with Jo. His mother arrived late that year and spent the rest of her life in England. Whistler became a collector of blue-and-white porcelain as well as Oriental costumes, in which he posed his models for such pictures as La Princess du Pays de la Porcelaine (1864). Despite the Oriental trappings, these paintings are essentially Victorian. Influenced by his friendship with Albert Joseph Moore, whose subjects were drawn from classical antiquity, Whistler did numerous classical subjects.
In 1871 Whistler published the 16 etchings Views of the Thames, known as the Thames Set. He also did a series of atmospheric paintings which he called nocturnes. He liked to go out on the river at twilight and was fascinated by the foggy or misty effects in the fading light. In putting these impressions on canvas from memory, he made use of the Japanese concept of space as a well-balanced design in which perspective plays no part. In the famous Arrangement in Grey and Black, the Artist's Mother (1872) he composed the picture with disarming simplicity, keeping compartmental Japanese spatial relationship in mind.
During 1877 Whistler exhibited several paintings, including Falling Rocket, a nocturne showing the mysterious and elusive effects of fireworks at night at Cremorne Gardens. It outraged John Ruskin, considered the arbiter of taste in England, and he wrote an insulting review of the exhibition. Whistler sued him for libel in what was the most sensational art trial of the century and was awarded a farthing damages without costs. The trial ruined Whistler financially, and he had to sell the house which architect E. W. Godwin had just built for him and dispose of his porcelain collection.
Fortunately, the Fine Arts Society commissioned Whistler to do 12 etchings of Venice. He spent 14 months in Venice doing many etchings as well as small oils, watercolors, and pastels. His etching style was now completely changed. He treated his themes with the utmost delicacy, using a spidery line and lively curves, and he often wiped the plates to give tone. His Venetian work sold well and he was financially re-established. He took a house in London with Maud Franklin, who had replaced Jo as model and mistress.
On the evening of Jan. 31, 1885, Whistler delivered at Prince's Hall the "Ten O'Clock, " his famous lecture summing up his theories of esthetics in beautifully polished prose. He mentioned the poetry that evening mists produce when "the tall chimneys become campanili and the warehouses are palaces at night."
One of Whistler's finest achievements was in the field of lithography, which he concentrated on for a 10-year period beginning in 1887. Drawing in the most spirited way, he used a stump as well as a pencil and obtained effects never achieved by a lithographer before him. He had great facility with watercolors and small oils which sometimes depicted the seaside or shop fronts in Chelsea. In portraiture he favored full-length standing poses, influenced by Diego Velázquez, and was more concerned with subtle tones and atmosphere than he was with exact likenesses.
In 1888 Whistler married E. W. Godwin's widow, Beatrix. The Whistlers moved to Paris in 1893 but 2 years later were back in England. Trixie, as his wife was called, died of cancer in 1896. After her death, Whistler maintained studios in both Paris and London. He died in London on July 17, 1903.
Whistler set forth his ideas on art in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890). Studies of Whistler and his work include Joseph and Elizabeth Robbins Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler (2 vols., 1908); Frederick A. Sweet, Sargent, Whistler, and Mary Cassatt (1954); Denys Sutton, Nocturne: The Art of James McNeill Whistler (1964); and Frederick A. Sweet, James McNeill Whistler (1968). □