James McNeill Whistler
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 14, 1834 – July 17, 1903)
was an American-born, British based painter and etcher.
Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in the United States.
His father, George Washington Whistler, was invited to Russia in
1842 to build a railroad and James learned French in school while
there. He also attended the United States Military Academy at West
Point for several years. His departure from this academy seems to
have been due to a failure in a chemistry exam; as he himself put
it later: "If silicon were a gas, I would have been a general
one day." In European society, he later presented himself as
an impoverished Southern aristocrat, although to what extent he
truly sympathized with the Southern cause during the American Civil
War remains unclear.
He is best known for his nearly black-and-white full-length portrait
of his mother, titled Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 1, but
usually referred to as Whistler's Mother. Though American, Whistler
lived and worked mainly in Britain and France.
Whistler's painting The White Girl (1862) caused controversy when
exhibited in London and, later, at the Salon des Refusés
in Paris. The painting epitomises his theory that art should essentially
be concerned with the beautiful arrangement of colors in harmony,
not with the accurate portrayal of the natural world, as recommended
by the critic John Ruskin.
In 1878 Whistler sued Ruskin for libel after the critic condemned
his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, calling
the artist a "coxcomb". Whistler won a farthing in nominal
damages. The cost of the case, together with huge debts from building
his residence, "The White House" in Tite Street, Chelsea,
(designed with E.W. Godwin, 1877-8) bankrupted him.
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl ((1862)).Friendly with
various French artists, he illustrated the book Les Chauves-Souris
with Antonio de La Gandara. He also knew the impressionists, notably
Edouard Manet, and was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement.
Whistler shared his lover, Joanna Hiffernan, with Gustave Courbet,
as a model. Historians speculate that he painted her as L'Origine
du monde, leading to the breakup of Whistler's friendship with Courbet.
He was well-known for his biting wit, especially in exchanges with
his friend Oscar Wilde. Both were figures in the café society
of Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Whistler's famous riposte
to Wilde's statement, "I wish I'd said that", "You
will Oscar, you will", is sometimes attributed to Wilde himself,
and may be apocryphal.
Once, after he had suffered a heart attack, a Dutch newspaper incorrectly
reported Whistler dead. He wrote to the newspaper, saying that reading
his own obituary induced a "tender glow of health".
Whistler's belief that art should concentrate on the arrangement
of colors led many critics to see his work as a precursor of abstract
Arrangement in Grey and Black, No 1 (Whistler's Mother) (section)
(1871).A gifted engraver, he produced numerous etchings, lithographs
and dry-points. Of these, the main characteristics are precision
and vivacity; freedom, flexibility, infinite technical resource,
at the service always of the most alert and comprehensive observation;
an eye that no picturesqueness of light and shade, no interesting
grouping of line, can ever escape — an eye, that is emancipated
from conventionality, and sees these things therefore with equal
willingness in a cathedral and a mass of scaffolding, in a Chelsea
shop and in a suave nude figure, in the facade of a Flemish palace
and in a "great wheel" at West Kensington.
His lithographs, drawings on the stone in many instances, and in
others his drawings on that "lithographie paper" which
with some people is the easy substitute for the stone today, are
perhaps half as numerous as his etchings. Mr T. R. Way has catalogued
about a hundred. 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, of unimaginable and
poetic mystery; others are bright and dainty indications of quaint
prettiness in the old Faubourg St Germain, and of the sober lines
of certain Georgian churches in Soho and Bloomsbury.
He is buried in St Nicholas's church yard in Chiswick, London.