William Merritt Chase, James
Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1885, oil on canvas. The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
is one of the most important figures in the history of American
art, renowned both for his revolutionary style and his eccentric
personality. In his time, Whistler became as well known for his
innovative ideas about art as he was for his letter-writing campaigns,
lawsuits and verbal barbs against critics, dealers and other artists
who misunderstood his work.
The Early Years
Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts,
the son of West Point graduate and civil engineer Major George Washington
Whistler and his second wife, Anna Matilda McNeill. When Whistler
was nine-years-old, his family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia,
where his father served as an engineer. While in Russia, the young
Whistler studied drawing at the Imperial Academy of Science and
announced his intention to become an artist. He also fell in love
with European culture and was not happy when his family moved back
to the United States.
After his father's death in 1849, Whistler,
with his family, returned to the U.S. He enrolled in the Military
Academy at West Point in 1851, where he excelled in a drawing class
but was dismissed from the academy in 1854 for "deficiency
in chemistry." He worked briefly at the Winans Locomotive Works
in Baltimore and the drawings division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic
Survey, but was not satisfied at either job. He left the United
States at age 21 to study and work in Paris and London, and never
Whistler the Artist
Whistler's attitude toward painting and
his challenging ideas often baffled the European art establishment
while inspiring American artists. He rejected the artistic standards
of the day, which dictated that paintings portray subjects realistically,
and that they tell a story, communicate moral values or focus on biblical
or mythological themes. Whistler considered subject matter and photograph-like
depictions less important than creating harmonies of color and composition.
He created art for art's sake, organizing color and line into a work
that was aesthetically beautiful. He also wanted his paintings to
convey a mood and an atmosphere, choosing to associate them with the
evocative nature of music by titling them "symphonies," "nocturnes"
Whistler's personality was as remarkable
as his artistic abilities. He was flamboyant, often strutting around
Paris wearing a straw hat, white suit, polished black patent leather
shoes and a monocle. Writers of his day referred to him as a "dandy."
At the same time, he was variously described as egotistical, arrogant,
outrageous, abrasive and self-promoting. He never backed down from
defending himself and was convinced that those who found fault with
his art simply did not understand it.
Whistler defended his reputation in court
by suing art critic John Ruskin over his scathing denouncement of
the painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
. Ruskin wrote that he never expected "a coxcomb to ask 200
guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler
won the lawsuit, but was awarded only one farthing. Even though
Whistler was bankrupted by the costs of the trial, he considered
it a successful defense of his honor. Ruskin was infuriated by what
he considered Whistler's moral victory and ended up resigning his
professorship at Oxford, believing the British justice system had
denied his right to criticize art.
Many American artists were intrigued by Whistler's
"modern" style, and imitated his approach to color and composition.
John Singer Sargent's The Spanish Dance invites comparison
to Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket . The
color scheme is black and gray, and fireworks are suggested against
a black sky. In Portrait of the Artist's Mother , Henry
Ossawa Tanner was clearly influenced by Whistler's Arrangement
in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother , posing
his mother sitting in a chair, facing left, with dark draperies
in the background and a simple color palette. Many other artists,
such as Albert Herter, adopted this sideways posing of portrait
subjects, as well as Whistler's use of white-on-white, both evident
in Herter's Portrait of Bessie .
Whistler was active until shortly before
his death from heart disease in 1903. Even after he died, his status
in the art world was not definitive. The excerpts below from a New
York Times obituary dated July 18, 1903, state it best:
"This morning's papers publish elaborate
obituary notices, recognizing the distinguished and unique personality
of Whistler, whose genius greatly dominated European art of the
present generation. While admitting that it is a question for posterity
to decide his exact position as a painter, it is generally conceded
that he was a consummate etcher."
The Daily Chronicle says:
"It is mortifying to think that
there is no example of his work in the public galleries of London,
where he lived and worked for so many years.
"It is twenty-five years since the
famous case, 'Whistler versus Ruskin,' was tried. In the history
of art it might be two hundred years, so completely has the point
of view of the critics and the public changed, so completely has
the brilliant genius of the man whom Ruskin called a "coxcomb"
"And yet, even now, there
are no standards by which one can judge his work, by which one can
form an estimate of his true place in the ranks of the world's great
artists. That he is among them is not doubted; just how high up
among them is not so clear. It is only once or twice in a century
that the originator of a new style in art or literature appears,
and it takes at least a century for the world to recover from the
dazed condition into which it is thrown by such a man's work."