James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903)

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Birthplace: Lowell, MA, USA
Death: Died in London, Greater London, United Kingdom
Occupation: Painter
Managed by: Brian Scott Fuller
Last Updated:

About James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Wikipedia

Whistler, James Abbott McNeill (1834-1903). American-born painter and graphic artist, active mainly in England. He soon made a name for himself, not just because of his talent, but also on account of his flamboyant personality. He was famous for his wit and dandyism, and loved controversy. His life-style was lavish and he was often in debt. He began work on a series of etchings. There Whistler was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, and he befriended Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oscar Wilde was also among his famous friends.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in in 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts, the third son of West Point graduate and civil engineer Major George Washington Whistler, and his second wife Anna Matilda McNeill. After brief stays in Stonington, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, the Whistlers moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, where the Major served as an civil engineer for the construction of a railroad line to Moscow. James Abbott was aged nine when his family moved to Russia, and he spent several of his childhood years there, studying drawing at the Imperial Academy of Science.

He soon became an inveterate traveller. In 1848 he went to live with his sister and her husband in London, and after his father's death the following year the family returned to the United States and settled in Pomfret, Connecticut. Whistler enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1851, where he excelled in Robert W. Weir's drawing class. He was dismissed from the academy in 1854 for "deficiency in chemistry", and after brief periods working for the Winans Locomotive Works in Baltimore, and the drawings division of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (he learnt etching as a US navy cartographer), resolved to become an artist and moved to Europe permanently in 1855.

Whistler settled in Paris first, where he studied at the Ecole Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin, before entering the Académie Gleyre. He made copies in the Louvre, acquired a lasting admiration for Velázquez, and became a devotee of the cult of the Japanese print and oriental art and decoration in general.

Through his friend Fantin-Latour he met Courbet, whose Realism inspired much of his early work. The circles in which he moved can be gauged from Fantin-Latour's Homage to Delacroix, in which Whistler is portrayed alongside Baudelaire, Manet, and others. He quickly associated himself with avant garde artists, and was influenced by Courbet's realism, as well as the seventeenth century Dutch and Spanish schools. With Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros, he founded the Société des Trois.

After Whistler's At The Piano (Taft Museum, Cincinnati) was rejected at the Salon of 1859 he moved to London, but often returned to France. At the Piano was well received at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1860 and he soon made a name for himself, not just because of his talent, but also on account of his flamboyant personality. He was famous for his wit and dandyism, and loved controversy. His life-style was lavish and he was often in debt. He began work on a series of etchings. There Whistler was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, and he befriended Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oscar Wilde was also among his famous friends.

James M'N. Whistler Dies in London

By THE NEW YORK TIMES

LONDON, July 18.--James Abbott McNeil Whistler, the celebrated American artist, died yesterday afternoon at his residence, 74 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, at the age of sixty-nine years. His death came unexpectedly, although for some time he had been seriously ill.

This morning's papers publish elaborate obituary notices, recognizing the distinguished and unique personality of Whistler, whose genius greatly dominated European art of the present generation. While admitting that it is a question for posterity to decide his exact position as a painter, it is generally conceded that he was a consummate etcher.

The Daily Telegraph says:

"It may safely be prophesied that the light of his genius will but burn the brighter when his self-asserted individuality has been a little forgotten or, at any rate, obscured."

The Daily Chronicle says:

"It is mortifying to think that there is no example of his work in the public galleries of London, where he lived and worked for so many years."

It is twenty-five years since the famous case, "Whistler versus Ruskin," was tried. In the history of art it might be two hundred years, so completely has the point of view of the critics and the public changed, so completely has the brilliant genius of the man whom Ruskin called a "coxcomb" been vindicated.

And yet, even now, there are no standards by which one can judge his work, by which one can form an estimate of his true place in the ranks of the world's great artists. That he is among them is not doubted; just how high up among them is not so clear. It is only once or twice in a century that the originator of a new style in art or literature appears, and it takes at least a century for the world to recover from the dazed condition into which it is thrown by such a man's work.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was a native of Lowell, Mass., where he was born in 1834. He was, therefore, nearly seventy years old at the time of his death, which will probably be a surprising fact to most people, for if ever a man lived whose manner and behavior conveyed the impression of youth, it was he. Details in regard to his early life are not easily ascertained.

His father and his elder brother were among the engineers who developed the great Russian railway system, and James was taken to Russia when he was a child. He returned to this country when he was twelve years old, and later he entered West Point. "If salicylate had been a gas I should have been a soldier," he once said, in referring to his failure to pass his examination at the Military Academy. It was extremely lucky for the art world that salicylate is not a gas.

At West Point one can see to this day a painting which Whistler executed when was a cadet there. There is nothing remarkable about it, even viewed in the favorable light which a knowledge of the artist's after achievements suggests. Later on, however, when Whistler was connected with the Coast Survey, he engraved many a fancy head and landscape at the side of his more formal topographic work (which habit led to the severing of his connection with that branch of the United States Government) that exhibited great mastery of the graver and extraordinary promise.

In 1855 Whistler went to England, and shortly afterward moved to Paris, and studied under Gleyre, who was a painter of classic and early Christian subjects in the Neo-Greek style. Needless to say, one looks in vain in Whistler's work for any trace of Gleyre's teaching.

There are no means of tracing the gradual growth of the "Whistler manner" in the artist's work. A portrait of himself which he etched in 1859 is in existence, and shows almost all the characteristics of his later productions. The year it was executed he began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, and four years later he settled in London.

It was in 1863 that Whistler's first famous painting was executed. It was the exquisite "Femme Blanche," now known as the "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl." Nowadays it is hard to believe that it was rejected at the Salon. Such, however, was the case, though the painting, when shown at the Salon des Refuses, made a great sensation in the art world of Paris. In the next ten years some of the artist's best known masterpieces were painted, including the portrait of Carlyle and the "Portrait de Ma Mere." It was only poetical justice that the latter picture should have been bought for the Luxembourg.

From the time he settled in London Whistler's output of work was remarkable. One painting after another now regarded as a chef d'oeuvre was produced. Merely to catalogue them all would take up considerable space. The "Sarasate," the "Lady Meux," the "Harmony in Gray and Green: The Ocean," the "Falling Rocket," the "Miss Alexander," the "Symphony in White No. 3"--each title conveys to the art lover familiar with the master's work an impression of tender color, exquisite line, fluency of modeling, and refined tone values. And at the same time Whistler was producing etchings, which collectors now seek as eagerly as those of Rembrandt or Meryon, and which would have made his reputation had he never held a palette in his hand.

Of Whistler the wit, the maker of paradoxes, the epigrammist, the master of the "gentle art of making enemies," it is perhaps unnecessary to speak. The general public is quite familiar with his achievements in this direction, and for a long time was under the mistaken impression that it was all done for self-advertising. It is safe to say that this side of his career will be forgotten. His work will remain.

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler's Timeline

1834
July 10, 1834
Lowell, MA, USA
1888
1888
Age 53
1903
July 17, 1903
Age 69
London, Greater London, United Kingdom
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London, UK