James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey: Portrait of the Painter , ca. 1872, oil on canvas. The Detroit Institute of Arts.

Exhibition Preview

Convinced that art should be concerned exclusively with beauty, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) developed a style that shook up the art world and challenged the Victorian status quo. By focusing on an overall harmony of shapes and colors, and suggestions of people and places rather than detailed descriptions, Whistler’s work offered artists a new approach to portraiture and paintings of modern life.

Whistler was born in the United States and at the age of twenty-one left to study and work in Paris and London. His attitude toward painting and his challenging ideas often perplexed the European art establishment and inspired American artists. These artists became acquainted with Whistler's work through exhibitions held in the U.S. and abroad, an unparalleled abundance of published reproductions, and sometimes encounters with the artist himself.

As this exhibition demonstrates, many Americans tried their hand at stylistic innovations that became known as “Whistlerian.” For several decades around 1900, Whistler's name was associated with artistic independence and international success. For artists of that era, to be “Whistlerian” was to be modern.

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