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The North Sea, 1883 (watercolour)
Green and Silver: The Bright Sea, Dieppe, 1883-85 (gouache and watercolour)
Blue and White Covered Urn (no date) 
Photo credit: Wikipaintings.org
The Athenæum

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 10, 1834 – July 17, 1903)


I do not know the name of the lady who sat for Whistler’s Head of a Young Woman (1890).  This portrait was painted at the height of Whistler’s career, two years after his marriage to Beatrix Birnie Philip, when the couple resided in Paris.

Interestingly, Whistler was not altogether wrong when he claimed he was born in Saint Petersburg.  He was in fact born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but he moved to Russia in 1843, a year after his father, George Washington Whistler, a prominent engineer, was hired to build a railroad connecting Saint Petersburg and Moscow.  He was 9 years old when he joined his father in Russia.  Those were formative years.  It could be said that Whistler was an “expat,” and one of the first American artists to settle in Europe, mingle with soul mates and enjoy both a bohemian lifestyle and the pleasures of a café society.


At the age of eleven, young James enrolled in Saint Petersburg‘s Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, where it was soon noticed that he was a gifted artist.  While his father was working in Russia, Whistler also visited England accompanied by his mother.  He met Francis Haden, a surgeon by profession, but also an artist.  Francis Haden married Whistler’s sister and would become the very distinguished Sir Francis Seymour Haden.  After his trip to England, James informed his father of his wish to pursue a career as an artist, writing “I hope, dear father, you will not object to my choice” (See James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Wikipedia).  However, James was about to lose his father to cholera.  George Washington Whistler died in Russia.

After James’ father passed away, the Whistler family was forced to return to the United States.  But they left Lowell, Massachusetts to settle in Pomfret, Connecticut, James’ mother’s hometown.  Whistler was therefore brought up in a more frugal manner than would otherwise have been the case.

Yet, despite his father’s untimely death, James would become an artist.  A career as a minister was Mrs Whistler’s first choice for her son.  However, James had no inclination for life as a member of the clergy, nor, for that matter, could he enter the military successfully.  He did attend West Point, failed an exam, misbehaved, and was dismissed by no less than Colonel Robert E. Lee.  He then worked as draftsman “mapping the entire U.S. coast for military and maritime purposes[,]” but drawing “sea serpents, mermaids, and whales on the margins of the maps, at which point he was transferred to the etching division of the U. S. Coast Survey.” (See James McNeill Whistler, Wikipedia.)

Whistler lasted two months as an etcher, but his training in this medium would be invaluable in the career he would embark upon after a stay with a wealthy friend, Tom Winans.  Winans, who lived in Baltimore, provided Whistler with a studio, pocket-money and, in 1855, with the funds that would allow Whistler to leave for Paris to perfect his skills as an artist.  Whistler never returned to the United States.  He is buried in Chiswick, near London.


Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean, 1866-1872 (oil)
Nocturne: The Thames at Battersea, 1878 (lithograph)
Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket, c. 1875 (oil, bottom of post)


When Whistler arrived in France, realism was all the rage.  He became a disciple of Gustave Courbet and befriended Henri Fantin-Latour. However, he was also influenced by the art for art’s sake movement, associated with writer Théophile Gauthier.  In the early 1860s, after he had settled in London, he visited Courbet and painted seascapes with him.  He also visited Brittany (1861) and the coast near Biarritz (1862).

But although his paintings reflect his exposure to realism and, to a certain extent, the Barbizon School (1830 through 1870), Whistler developed a rather personal style called tonalism.  Tonalism is also associated with George Inness and, to a certain extent, with the Russian mood landscapes of Aleksey Savrasov[ii] and Isaac Levitan.[iii]  It is perhaps best described as a “veiled” form of realism, a subtler art, except that Whistler’s use of colour reflects musical keys.  Whistler built a close relationship between his colours or tones, as though they were painted in a key, usually in one of the more plaintive minor keys.  Many of his paintings are called “Nocturnes,” à la Chopin, Symphonies, Harmonies and Notes.  Whistler’s paintings therefore herald Impressionism as do Édouard Manet’s.  However, printmakers practice a certain linearity, a technique not altogether compatible with imprecise Impressionism.  Whistler produced several etchings and lithographs.

Also evident in the art of James McNeill Whistler is the influence of Japonisme and Orientalisme (FR) In this respect, Whistler is very much a contemporary of middle to late 19th-century French artists: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Pablo PicassoJaponisme also permeates the emerging, yet soon to be the golden age of the poster: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Théophile Steinlen and Art Nouveau.

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Whistler is known for his “his paintings of nocturnal London, for his striking and stylistically advanced full-length portraits, and for his brilliant etchings and lithographs.”  He is also known for his “congenial themes on the River Thames, and the etchings that he did of such subjects garnered praise from the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire when they were exhibited in Paris.”[iv]

However, when he showed Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket (shown at the bottom of this post), Whistler did not garner praise from eminent British critic John Ruskin.  On 2 July 1877, in his Fors Clavigera, John Ruskin wrote:

“For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay [founder of the Grosvenor Gallery] ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”  (quoted in James McNeill Whistler, Wikipedia)

Modernism was happening across the English Channel.  Yet, the jury returned a verdict in favour of James McNeill Whistler.


Moreby Hall, 1883–1884 (watercolour)

[i]  “Aleksey Kondratyevich Savrasov.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.            
[ii] “Isaak Ilyich Levitan.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.            
[iii] “James McNeill Whistler”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2013
composer: Edvard Grieg (15 June 1843 – 4 September 1907)
451px-Whistler-Nocturne_in_black_and_gold (1)© Micheline Walker
14 April 2013