James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American-born, British-based artist. Averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting. Finding a parallel between painting and music, Whistler entitled many of his paintings "arrangements", "harmonies", and "nocturnes", emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. His most famous painting is Whistler's Mother (1871), the revered and often parodied portrait of motherhood. Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his artistic theories and his friendships with leading artists and writers.
James Abbott Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. Young Whistler was a moody child prone to fits of temper and insolence, who often drifted into periods of laziness. His parents discovered in his early youth that drawing often settled him down and helped focus his attention. Beginning in 1842, his father was employed to work on a railroad in Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg, the young Whistler took private art lessons, then enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts at age eleven. The young artist followed the traditional curriculum of drawing from plaster casts and occasional live models. In 1847-8, Whistler already was imagining an art career. He began to collect books on art and he studied other artists’ techniques. But because of his father's death, he came back to USA and his art plans remained vague and his future uncertain.
At school Whistler was seldom without his sketchbook and was popular with his classmates for his caricatures. However, after it became clear that a career in religion did not suit him, he applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point and was admitted to the highly selective institution. There, Whistler bucked authority, spouted sarcastic comments, and racked up demerits. After considerable indulgence toward Whistler he he finally was dismissed.
After West Point, Whistler worked as draftsman mapping the entire U.S. coast for military and maritime purposes before being transferred to the etching division of the U. S. Coast Survey. He lasted there only two months, but he learned the etching technique which later proved valuable to his career. At this point, Whistler firmly decided that art would be his future. He informed his mother about setting out to further his art training in Paris. Whistler never returned to the United States.
Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855 and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. He studied traditional art methods for a short time at the Ecole Impériale and at the atelier of Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. The latter was a great advocate of the work of Ingres, and impressed Whistler with two principles that he used for the rest of his career: line is more important than color and that black is the fundamental color of tonal harmony. Twenty years later, the Impressionists would largely overthrow this philosophy, banning black and brown as "forbidden colors" and emphasizing color over form. In Paris, Whistler spent freely and was in steady debt. To relieve the situation, he took to painting and selling copies he made at the Louvre and finally moved to cheaper quarters.
In 1858, he travel to France and produced a group of etchings. This year he met Henri Fantin-Latour, whom he met at the Louvre and through him he was introduced to the circle of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet. Reflecting the banner of realism of his adopted circle, Whistler painted his first exhibited work, La Mere Gerard in 1858. He followed it by painting At the Piano in 1859 in London, which he adopted as his home, while also regularly visiting friends in France. After a year in London, as counterpoint to his 1858 French set, in 1860, he produced another set of etchings called Thames Set, as well as some early impressionistic work, including The Thames in Ice. At this stage, he was beginning to establish his technique of tonal harmony based on a limited, pre-determined palette.
In 1861, after returning to Paris for a time, Whistler painted his first famous work, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. In England, some considered it a painting in the Pre-Raphaelite manner.The portrait was refused for exhibition at the conservative Royal Academy, but was shown in a private gallery under the title The Woman in White. In 1863 it was shown at the Salon des Refusés in Paris, an event sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III for the exhibition of works rejected from the Salon.
Whistler's painting was widely noticed, although upstaged by Manet's more shocking painting Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. Countering criticism by traditionalists, Whistler's supporters insisted that the painting was "an apparition with a spiritual content". In January 1864, Whistler's very religious and very proper mother arrived in London, upsetting her son's bohemian existence and temporarily exacerbating family tensions.
In 1866, Whistler decided to visit Valparaíso, Chile at that time at war with Spain. What the journey did produce was Whistler's first three nocturnal paintings. After he returned to London, he painted several more nocturnes over the next ten years, many of the River Thames. In his maritime nocturnes, Whistler used highly thinned paint as a ground with lightly flicked color to suggest ships, lights, and shore line. Some of the Thames paintings also show compositional and thematic similarities with the Japanese prints of Hiroshige. Whistler's nocturnes were among his most innovative works. Furthermore, his submission of several nocturnes to art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel after the Franco-Prussian War gave Whistler the opportunity to explain his evolving "theory in art" to artists, buyers, and critics in France.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 fragmented the French art community. Many artists took refuge in England, joining Whistler, including Pissarro and Monet, while Manet and Degas stayed in France. Like Whistler, Monet and Pissarro both focused their efforts on views of the city.
By 1871, Whistler returned to portraits and soon produced his most famous painting, the Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 referred to as Whistler's Mother. According to a letter from his mother, one day, after a model failed to appear, Whistler turned to his mother and suggested he do her portrait. Mostly because of its anti-Victorian simplicity, during a time in England when sentimentality and flamboyant decoration were in vogue, the public reacted negatively. The Royal Academy rejected it, then grudgingly accepted it after lobbying by Sir William Boxall—but then hung the painting in an unfavorable location at its exhibition.
Whistler had been disappointed over the irregular acceptance of his works for the Royal Academy exhibitions and the poor hanging and placement of his paintings. In response, Whistler staged his first solo show in 1874.
Whistler joined the Society of British Artists in 1884, and on June 1, 1886, he was elected president. In 1890, he met Charles Lang Freer, who became a valuable patron in America, and ultimately, his most important collector. Around this time, in addition to portraiture, Whistler experimented with early color photography and with lithography, creating a series featuring London architecture and the human figure, mostly female nudes.
After an indifferent reception to his solo show in London, featuring mostly his nocturnes, Whistler abruptly decided he had had enough of London. He and Trixie moved to Paris in 1892 but 4 years later his wife had cancer and he came back to London. She died a few months later. In the final seven years of his life, Whistler did some minimalist seascapes in watercolor and a final self-portrait in oil. He corresponded with his many friends and colleagues. Whistler founded an art school in 1898, but his poor health and infrequent appearances led to its closure in 1901. He died in London on July 17, 1903.