American-born painter, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, was a leading figure of the avant-garde, whose striking and stylistically advanced full-length portraits, brilliant lithographs and etchings profoundly impacted the course of European and modern art.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in July of 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts, son of civil engineer Major George Washington Whistler and Anna Matilda McNeill. His family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, where young James spent most of his childhood and studied at the Imperial Academy of Science. He went to live with his sister and her husband in London in 1848, but was sent back home when his father died the following year. The family returned to the United States and settled in Pomfret, Connecticut.
In 1851 after graduation, James enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father had trained. The academy dismissed him in 1854 for a “deficiency in chemistry. He moved to Europe in 1855 in order to follow his artistic aspirations. He worked for a while as a draftsman with the U.S. Coast Survey before deciding to enroll at the Ecole Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin in Paris. In 1806, he entered the Académie Gleyre and studied under Swiss classicist painter Charles Gabriel Gleyre.
A growing fascination for Japanese print and oriental art helped Whistler to develop and nurture a delicate sense of color and design, evident in most of his mature works. In 1858, he created a set of etchings entitled, ‘Twelve Etchings from Nature’, known more commonly as the ‘French Set’.
During that time, Realism became Whistler’s focus, largely due to the influence of Gustave Courbet. With Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros, he founded the ‘Société des Trois’. After his piece ‘At The Piano’ was rejected at the Salon of 1859, the artist moved to London, where the painting was well received at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1860.
In 1861, ‘Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl l’ brought James Abbott McNeill Whistler his first major success at the Salon des Refusés (1863) in Paris. His refusal to use conventional titles for his works was an effort to get the public to view his paintings as paint on canvas producing art, instead of some representation in life.
During this period, he became acquainted with the Pre-Raphaelite group and created some of his most popular works including ‘Arrangement in Black and Grey No. 1: The Artist's Mother’ (better known as Whistler’s Mother), ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Thomas Carlyle’ and ‘Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander’.
In 1877, James Abbott McNeill Whistler exhibited a number of landscapes created in the Japanese manner. These nocturnes (as the artist referred to them) outraged conservative art opinion. ‘Falling Rocket: Nocturne in Black and Gold’ became the podium for English art critic John Ruskin who expressed his views in an article that criticized the artist for his avoidance of narrative detail and expression of art. Whistler accused him of slander and sued him for damages. While the artist won his case, the legal costs left him bankrupt. Selling what he could of his paintings and contents of his studio, Whistler left England, worked intensively from 1879 to 1880 in Venice, then returned to England and resumed his attack on the academic art tradition.
In the latter part of his life, the artist dedicated himself to etching, drypoint, lithography, and interior decoration. The Thames series (1860), the First Venice series (1880), and the Second Venice series (1881) won him abundant praise when they were exhibited in London in 1881 and 1883. His interior decorating skills can be appreciated in ‘The Peacock Room’, which he painted for a private London residence. James Abbott McNeill Whistler spent his late years in Paris, and died in London on July 17, 1903. He is recognized and celebrated as an innovative artist of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.