b. Lowell, Mass., USA 1834 d. Chelsea, England 1903
Works   |   Exhibitions featuring James Whistler
James Abbott Whistler (also known as James Abbott MacNeill Whistler) was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. His parents were George Washington Whistler, civil engineer, and his second wife, Anna Matilda McNeill. While in Russia, 1843-48, Whistler studied art with a student, A. O. Koritskii, and at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. In London, he saw Rembrandt etchings owned by his brother-in-law, Francis Seymour Haden, and Raphael cartoons at Hampton Court.

After his father's death in 1849 the family returned to America. In 1851, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, studying art under Robert W. Weir. Deficiencies in chemistry and discipline led to his expulsion in 1854. An interlude in the drawing division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Washington, D. C., provided training in etching, the basis of his future career. In 1855 he sailed for Europe to study art, and, while remaining an American citizen, never returned.

He attended classes at the École Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin in Paris, and the studio of Charles Gleyre. He visited the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857, forming a life-long passion for the Dutch masters and Velasquez. In the Musée du Louvre, he met Henri Fantin Latour and, through him, entered the circle of Gustave Courbet, leader of the Realists. His first important painting,  At the Piano, a portrait of his half-sister Deborah Haden and her daughter, was rejected at the Salon in 1859, but admired by Courbet.  

In August 1858 a tour of northern France, Luxembourg and the Rhineland resulted in Twelve Etchings from Nature, printed with Auguste Delâtre's help in Paris. Whistler's etchings hung at the Salon and Royal Academy in 1859. The success of the 'French Set' of etchings encouraged Whistler to move to London, where he began twelve etchings of the river. In 1862 Baudelaire praised the depiction of contemporary city life in the 'Thames Set'. It was published in 1871. Whistler was established at the forefront of the etching revival.

The model was his red-haired Irish mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, who posed in Paris in 1861 for 'The White Girl', later called Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl . Rejected by the Royal Academy in 1862, it hung in a London gallery. In the first of many published letters, Whistler denied that it represented Wilkie Collins's 'Woman in White' but simply represents a girl dressed in white in front of a white curtain' (Athenaeum, 5 July 1862). Rejected also by the Paris Salon in 1863, it was, with Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, the 'succès de scandale' of the Salon des Refusés. Paul Mantz in the Gazette des Beaux Arts (July 1863) called it a 'Symphonie du blanc'. Whistler adopted this nomenclature publicly for Symphony in White, No. 3  at the Royal Academy in 1867.

In 1866, avoiding family and political problems (the arrest of a friend, the Irish activist, John O'Leary) he travelled to Valparaiso, painting his first night scenes, including Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso Bay.

In the Grosvenor Gallery, he exhibited Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket , a portrait of Maud, 'evidently caught in a London fog,' as Oscar Wilde wrote (1877). The influential art critic, John Ruskin, singled out Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket , writing that he 'never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face' (Fors Clavigera, 2 July 1877, pp. 181-213). In the ensuing libel case, Whistler justified the price: `I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.' He won the case, but was awarded derisory damages without costs. He published Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics, dedicated to Albert Moore (who had appeared in his defence), the first in a series of brown paper pamphlets, in December 1878.

Whistler's position was serious. To raise money he published etchings, including Old Battersea Bridge , and, helped by the printer Thomas Way. He painted expressive watercolours of Nankin porcelain for a catalogue of Sir Henry Thompson's collection (1878). None of these measures sufficed. In May 1879 he was declared bankrupt. His work, collections and house were auctioned.

With a commission from the Fine Art Society, London dealers, for a set of twelve etchings, he left for Venice. He stayed over a year, producing 50 etchings and over 90 pastels of back streets and canals, bead-stringers and gondoliers. He joined Frank Duveneck and his students in the Casa Jankowitz, and worked on etchings with Otto Bacher. Such etchings as Nocturne  were distinguished by a delicate combination of etching and drypoint lines with a surface tone of ink, producing effects akin to monotype.

The first Venice set, of twelve etchings, was published in 1880, but printing took over twenty years. The second set, 26 etchings, published by Messrs. Dowdeswell in 1886, was printed within a year. Whistler etched but never published several later sets, including a 'Jubilee Set' in 1887, a 'Renaissance set' in France in 1888, and Amsterdam in 1889, 'of far finer quality than all that has gone before – combining a minuteness of detail ... with greater freedom and more beauty of execution than even the last Renaissance lot can pretend to' (letter to M. B. Huish, Glasgow University Library).

He travelled widely in England and Continental Europe, and his work was exhibited in Europe and America. The first watercolour he exhibited in New York, at the Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition in 1883, was Snow, painted in Amsterdam in 1882. In 1884 he painted sea-scapes in St. Ives with his pupils, the Australian born Mortimer Menpes, and the English Walter Sickert. In 1885 he was in Holland arguing with W. M. Chase. Watercolours like Variations in Violet and Grey – Market Place, Dieppe  were shown beside those of the Impressionists at the Galerie Georges Petit, in Paris, in 1883 and 1887. 'His little sketches show fine draftsmanship,' wrote Pissarro in May 1887, 'he is a showman, but nevertheless an artist' (J. Rewald, Camille Pissarro, Letters to Lucien Pissarro, London 1943, pp.108, 110). He oscillated between London, Paris and Dieppe. In 1901 he filled books with sketches of Algiers and Corsica.

In 1888, Whistler married Beatrix, widow of E. W. Godwin. An artist and designer, she worked beside him, encouraging his pastels of young models, like the Pettigrew sisters, and lithographs. Some of his finest lithographs, like The Duet  of 1894, show Beatrix at home in 110 rue du Bac in Paris. The most poignant,  By the Balcony and The Siesta ), were drawn as she lay dying of cancer, during his lithography exhibition at the Fine Art Society in 1895. She died in 1896, and her young sister, Rosalind Birnie Philip, became Whistler's ward and inherited his estate.

Whistler's collection of letters and pamphlets on art, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, was published by William Heinemann in 1890. Another book recorded a lawsuit against Sir William Eden in 1898 which resulted in a change to French law, giving artists control over their work.

(Source: University of Glasgow: Centre for Whistler Studies)
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