James Abbott Mcneill Whistler was born on July 11, 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was the first child of George Whistler and Anna Mcneill.
His father George Whistler was a railroad engineer. In 1839 George was appointed the chief engineer of the Boston & Albany Railroad. In 1842 George was offered a position to help engineer a railroad in St. Petersburg, Russia after Nicholas I of Russia learned of his skills. Later that year George moved to St. Petersburg. As a child James was prone to having fits of anger.
His parents soon figured out that the best way to calm him down was to have him draw. James joined his father in St. Petersburg a year later. He began taking private art lessons and then enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts when he was eleven. While in school James studied a traditional curriculum and enjoyed talking about art with older peers. In 1844 he met Scottish artist Sir William Allen in Russia. In Whistler’s moms diary she wrote that Allen once told her, ” Your little boy has uncommon genius, but do not urge him beyond his inclination”. In 1847-1848 Whistler spent some time in England with his brother-in-law who would take him to lectures and to look at different collectors.
It was during this time that James believed he wanted to be an artist. He wrote to his father to let him know of his decision; however, his father died forcing him and his family to move to Connecticut and put his art dreams on hold. Whistler was sent to Christ Church Hall School were his mom hoped he would become a minister.
However, it soon became clear that becoming a minister was not for him so he applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point where his father had taught drawing and where some of his other relatives had gone. James was admitted to the school in 1951 even though he had a history of poor health and was nearsighted. Whistler was eventually kicked out of West Point after disregarding the rules on more than one occasion and racking up demerits. His first job after leaving West Point was working as a draftsman during which he mapped the entire U.S.
coast for the military. He found this job to be quite boring so he would show often show up late or not show up at all. When it was discovered that he was drawing sea serpents, mermaids, and whales in the marges of the maps he was transferred to the etching division of the U.
S Coast Survey. While he only lasted there a couple of months he learned how to etch which proved useful in his career later on.After his failed attempts at other jobs and careers Whistler finally figured out that he wanted to pursue art as a career.
After gaining some money from selling some paintings he decided to head to Paris to receive more training. He arrived in Paris in 1855 and rented a studio in the Latin Quarter. At Ecole Impériale and at Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre’s studio Whistler studied traditional art methods for a time. He often went to the Louvre to copy the pictures there as his practice.
Even though he was receiving letters from his mother about her finances Whistler spent his money freely and started building up debt after not selling any of is art during his first year in Paris. He eventually started making some money by selling copies and painting he made at the Louvre and by moving into cheaper housing. However during the winter of 1857 Whistlers poor health was made worse by his excessive smoking and drinking. He recovered that summer and was able to travel through France and the Rhineland with a fellow artist named Ernest Delannoy. It was during this time that Whistler made his first self-portrait, “Portrait of Whistler in a Hat”. Through Henri Fantin-Latour Whistler was able to meet Gustave Courbet, Alphonse Legros, Edouard Manet, and Carolus-Duran.
He also met Charles Baudelaire whose ideas and theories influenced Whistler.In 1858 Whistler painted his first exhibited art, “La Mere Gerard”. It reflected the ideas and theories of realism that he had adopted from his new group of artist friends. In 1859 he painted, “At the Piano” which was well received at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1860. While this painting did help Whistler make a name for himself it was not the only reason he became famous. He was known for his outlandish personality and for his love of controversy.
Whistlers art was the complete opposite of his wild personality. His art was usually discret and subtle. It was also during this time that Whistler began to give his work musical titles to suggest an analogy with the abstract art of music. He thought that paintings were music to your eyes so he used musical terms to name them. Whistler painted his first famous art piece in 1861 titled, “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl.
This painting displayed his mistress and business partner Joanna Hiffernan and was created as a simple study. However, it was criticized by some as showing a new brides’s lost innocence, and was thought by others to be attached to different books during that time. The Royal Academy refused to display it in their exhibit. However, in 1863 it was displayed in an event sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III at the Salen Des Refusés in Paris. Whistler created another portrait of Hiffernan two years later, entitled The Little White Girl, displaying his newfound interest in Asian motifs.
During his career Whistler incorporated many sources into his art including Japanese art, Velázques, and Rembrandt. His paintings were related to many different movements including Impressionism, Symbolism, and Aestheticism. He himself played a major role in introducing modern ideas into British art. He also affected two generations of artists in the United States and Europe. He taught aspects of Tonalism to Arthur Frank Mathews who then took the teachings back to artist in San Francisco, California. He went to stay in Venice in 1880 where he created a series of etchings and pastels the helped artists and photographers interpret the city in a new way. When he returned to London his art was well received and sold very quickly. For the rest of his career he continued to try different kinds of art, and he influenced his students to continue his way of thinking as they went out on their own.
He died July 17, 1903 in London. After his death most of his artwork was donated to Glasgow University. He was commemorated in 1940 when he was put on a postage stamp after the U.S Post Office issued 35 stamps commemorating America’s famous Authors, Poets, Educators, Scientists, Composers, Artists, and Inventors. Bibliography”Biography of James Abbott McNeill Whistler.” James Abbott McNeill Whistler – The Complete Works – Biography, The complete works, 2002. Sutton, Denys.
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com/biography/James-McNeill-Whistler.Sutherland, Daniel E. Whistler: a life for arts sake. Yale University Press, 2014.
Weinberg, Author: H. Barbara. “James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.Whistler, James McNeill, and Malcolm C. Salaman.
James McNeill Whistler. The Studio, 1932.