William Merritt Chase, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1885, oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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James McNeill Whistler-A Brief Overview
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 returned.

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" and "arrangements."

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.

Whistler's Legacy
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" been vindicated.

"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."
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