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James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Lowell, Massachusetts
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Death Place: 
The greatest etcher since Rembrandt and one of the most innovative painters of the 19th century, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, an American who lived and worked in London and Paris, is also noted for his watercolors, lithographs and designs for interiors and objects d’art. Born in Lowell, MA in 1834, his family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia in 1843 where his father had been hired to construct railroads. Whistler’s education in art began with drawing lessons there. After his father’s death in 1849, the family returned to the United States. Following his late father, Whistler entered West Point in 1851 but was discharged in 1854 without graduating. He worked briefly for the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey, where he learned to etch, but left in 1855. Whistler went to Paris later that year, never to return to the United States. He studied at the École Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin, in the studio of Charles Gleyre (1806-1874) and with Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), whose Realism became a major influence on Whistler’s art. A tour of the Rhineland and northern France in 1858 led to Whistler’s “French Set” of etchings (Kennedy 9-11, 13-18, 21, 22, 24 and title page [25]). Whistler visited his half-sister Deborah Haden in London at frequent intervals, and on one such trip painted At the Piano (1858, Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati), featuring Deborah and her daughter. Rejected by the jury for the 1859 Paris Salon, the painting was accepted for the British Royal Academy’s 1860 exhibition, received praise and was sold. Whistler began working on “Thames Set” of etchings (Kennedy 38-44, 46, 52, 66, 68, 71, 74-76 and 95) soon after moving to London in 1859. His painting Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1861, National Gallery of Art, Washington) was rejected by both the Royal Academy and the Salon, but was exhibited at 1863 Salon des Refusés, where it scandalized the Parisian art world. In these years Whistler’s art evolved from the realism inspired by Courbet towards the aestheticism of “art for art’s sake” associated with his later paintings, and began to reflect the style of the Japanese prints that he collected. By the early1870s Whistler enjoyed a high level of patronage and lived lavishly, but then suffered a self-inflicted financial catastrophe. First, he quarreled bitterly with his patron Frederick R. Leyland (1831–1892) over Whistler’s sumptuous decoration of the dining room in Leyland’s London residence (The Peacock Room, 1876-7, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington) and advances for works commissioned but not completed. The art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) published a scathing review of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875, Detroit Institute of Art). Whistler sued Ruskin for libel and was victorious, but was awarded damages of only one farthing (the smallest coin of the realm) and was required to pay his own attorney’s fees. Finally, Whistler commissioned the design and construction of a lavish residence. Unable to raise sufficient funds to pay for the construction and retire his debts to Leyland, his attorneys and other creditors, Whistler was forced to declare bankruptcy. He was rescued from financial ruin by a commission to travel to Venice and create a set of etchings. The first twelve of the series of fifty remarkable etchings were published in 1880 (Kennedy 183-189, 191-195) and some one hundred pastels of Venetian scenes were exhibited in 1881. These works were very well received and Whistler’s finances recovered. In 1884, Whistler was commissioned to paint the portrait Beatrix Godwin (1857-1896), the wife of the architect for his residence; they were married in 1888, two years after she became a widow. After they moved to Paris in 1892 Beatrix fell ill with cancer; the couple returned to London in 1896 where she died later that year. Among his many honors, he was made a member of the Legion of Honor in 1889 and the French state purchased his painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871, Museé d’Orsay, Paris), in 1891. Whistler described his theories about art in his famous 1885 “Ten O’Clock Lecture,” and published a collection of his letters and pamphlets in 1890 as The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. In poor health during the last years of his life, Whistler died in London in 1903. Memorial exhibitions of his work were held in 1904 in Boston and in 1905 in London and Paris. (TNB 9/2010) Selected bibliography: Curry, David Park. James McNeill Whistler. Uneasy Pieces. Richmond: Virginia Museums of Fine Arts, 2004. Dorment, Richard and Margaret F. MacDonald. James McNeill Whistler. Exhibition catalog. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1994.