James Whistler

James Whistler

Style: American Impressionism, Impressionism

Lived: July 14, 1834 - July 17, 1903 (19th - 20th century)

Nationality: USA

INTRODUCTION

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 14, 1834 – July 17, 1903) was an American-born British painter and etcher.


JAMES WHISTLER'S YOUTH

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.


JAMES WHISTLER AS AN ARTIST

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.

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 art.

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.


JAMES WHISTLER'S DEATH

James Abbott McNeill Whistler died on July 17, 1903 and is buried in St Nicholas's church yard in Chiswick, London.

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