I am sure that the first thing anyone thinks of when they hear the name James Abbott McNeill Whistler is the dower painting of his Mother. The muted pallet and stern setting of the piece along with the initial reaction to its original name made this a sure-fire masterpiece, but ask most people to name another piece by Whistler and they probably can’t.
Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834 to Anna and George Whistler. He lived his first 3 years in a house which has now become “Whistler’s House Museum of Art”, dedicated to his artwork. In 1837 they moved to Stonington, Connecticut so that his father could work on the railway. In 1839 they moved to Springfield Massachusetts as his father became a chief engineer on the Boston to Albany line. In 1842 Nicholas the first of Russia learned of George Whistler’s ingenuity and offered him a job building a railway from Moscow to St. Petersburg, so the family moved to Russia.
Whistler, by all accounts, was a horrible child. Prone to temper tantrums and laziness, but the drawing would seem to settle him. In Russia, Whistler had private art lessons and then enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Art at the age of 11. Here Whistler would undertake the same curriculum as his older peers and the socialisation with them enabled him to appear to be beyond his years.
Whistler would later claim that his birthplace was Russia, remarking “I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell.”
In 1847, leaving George in Russia, Whistler and the rest of his family went to spend time with relatives in London. Here Whistler was encouraged further to follow his artistic urges by his brother in law, Francis Haden, who took him to lectures and visit collectors. Whistler wrote to his father to tell him that he planned to follow a career in art and he hoped that he wasn’t disappointed. His father died of cholera at the age of 49, forcing the family to move back to his mother’s home town of Pomfret, Connecticut. Here they had to live a frugal life, and his mother sent him to a Christian school in the hope that he would become a minister, but it was clear very quickly that this was not a path that Whistler wanted to tread.
Whistler then applied to the West Point US Military Academy and managed to get into the school through family connections. Here he was popular with his classmates and was rarely without his sketchbook, but low grades and poor turn out did not go in his academic favour.
After West Point, Whistler got a job mapping the US coastal line but was transferred to the etching division when it was found he was doodling sea serpents and mermaids in the margins of the maps. He only lasted 2 months here but learned enough about etching to make use of it in his later career.
At this point Whistler firmly decided that his future lay in the art world, and lived in Baltimore for a short time, making connections before moving to Paris in 1855. He would never return to the United States.
Whistler formally studied for a short time in Paris, before favouring self-study. He lived the “Café” lifestyle and while letters from home spoke about how his mother worked hard to maintain a steady income, Whistler sold little to nothing and got himself in debt. He eventually started to make a wage by selling copies of paintings he had seen in the Louvre.
The winter of 1857 was hard for Whistler, as the cold climate, and excessive smoking and drinking worsened his health, but it improved in the summer of 1958. His recovery meant that he could travel through France and the Rhineland and produces a set of etches known as “The French Set”.
This was also the year that Whistler would paint his first self-portrait, “Portrait of Whistler with Hat”. This painting is reminiscent of Rembrandt, which a dark tone and thick rendering defining the realism that penetrated his work.
The greatest thing that happened to Whistler in this year was his friendship with Henri Fantin Latour, who he had met at the Louvre. This friendship would open up a social circle for Whistler, introducing him to other artists such as Gustav Courbet, Alphonse Legros, Edouard Manet and Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s ideas and theories on “modern art” would influence Whistler and challenged him to look at the brutalities of life and nature so as to be able to portray it faithfully.
Whistler then moved on to London and in 1860 produced another set of etchings called “The Thames Set”. These works paved the way for Whistler’s well-known limited pallets.
In 1861, on his return to Paris, Whistler painted his first famous work – “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” finished in 1862. To Whistler, this was simply a study of his mistress – Joanna Hiffernan, but to critics, they say many different things in the work. Some saw the lost innocence of a new bride, while others linked it to the novel “The Woman in White”, by Castagnary. The woman in the painting is holding a lily and stood on a bearskin rug. The rug seen as the symbolism of masculinity and lust as it menacingly stares out at the audience, while the woman looks lost as the lily in her hand represents her innocence which will now die as quickly as the flower.
The painting was rejected to be displayed in the Royal Academy, but is was shown in a private gallery, and later would be sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III for the exhibition of works rejected by the Salon. This painting gained Whistler some notoriety, and his supporters felt that his work embodied the theory that art should be concerned with the colour arrangement in harmony and not a literal portrayal of the natural world.
Two years later, Whistler painted another portrait of Hiffernan in white, this time displaying his new interest in Asian motifs, entitled “The Little White Girl”, which led to other portraits of her in Asian dress and emphatic Asian surroundings.
Hiffernan and Whistler’s relationship started to breakdown when she modelled nude for Courbet, and further deteriorated, when Whistler’s mother came to London, forcing Whistler to clean up his lifestyle and move Hiffernan out to another location.
In 1866 Whistler visited Chile. His reasons are documented as political as Chile was at war with Spain, and perhaps Whistler saw something artistically romantic in the battle between the small underdog and larger country, but it is a move that has puzzled art historians. During his time there, he did produce 3 of his “Nocturne” paintings, night scenes of harbours painted in blues and greens. This was a theme he carried on after his return to London, creating night scenes of the Thames. For these, he used thinned down paints and used delicate flecks of colour to indicate ships on the waterline but continuing his limited pallets for his paintings.
Whistler had originally started to call these paintings “Moonlights” but changed the titles so that they concentrated on the harmonies of colour, much like harmonies in music, rather than after the subject of the paintings.
In 1871, Whistler painted his most famous piece. “Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1”, or more commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother”. I recently had the chance to view this piece in person, while at the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, and the delicate detailing and limited pallet allow the viewer to concentrate on the overall tones of the painting rather than the subject herself. The initial reaction to this painting was negative, as audiences and critics hated the title, wanting to know who the subject of the painting was. Hence the colloquial name for the piece.
Now the painting (after years of ridicule) the piece is seen to be the ultimate symbol of motherhood or reverence in old age, but this was only after staunch supporters of the piece lobbied for it to be displayed in the Royal Academy, despite it being hung in an unfavourable spot.
From here, Whistler’s career took off, and he created many beautiful pieces in a limited pallet, staying true to his beliefs of art being like music where the colours should work in harmony.
Whistler created his own signature design, influenced by his love of Asian motif, which takes the initials of his name worked into a butterfly.
In 1877 Whistler tried to sue an art critic, John Ruskin, for his damning review of “Nocturne in Black and Gold”. The case dragged on for several reasons, and eventually saw the critic win the case, and Whistler declares bankruptcy, as well as losing popularity due to this stunt.
After the trial, Whistler was commissioned to create 12 etchings of Venice and moved there with his girlfriend Maud. Determined to take his mind off of his dire situation and financial struggles, he worked on integrating himself into the Venice lifestyle and socialising with the American consulate. On his return on London he had created not on the etching, but hundreds of pastels and watercolours illustrating the mood and lifestyle of Venice, which sold better than he was expecting.
He revelled in the new-found admiration from the younger English and American generation, and in 1885 published his first book “The Ten O’clock Lecture” which investigated his beliefs of ‘art for art’s sake’. Oscar Wilde praised the book, but Whistler thought he was being mocked by him and this started a public sparring match of wits between the pair.
Wilde would later base the murdered artist in “The Picture of Dorian Grey” on Whistler.
In January 1881, Anna Whistler died. In his mother’s honour, thereafter, he publicly adopted her maiden name McNeill as a middle name.
Whistler joined the Society of British Artists in 1884, and on June 1, 1886, he was elected president. The following year, during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Whistler presented to the Queen, on the Society’s behalf, an elaborate album including a lengthy written address and illustrations that he made. Queen Victoria so admired “the beautiful and artistic illumination” that she decreed henceforth, “that the Society should be called Royal.” This achievement was widely appreciated by the members, but soon it was overshadowed by the dispute that inevitably arose with the Royal Academy of Arts. Whistler proposed that members of the Royal Society should withdraw from the Royal Academy. This ignited a feud within the membership ranks that overshadowed all other society business. In May 1888, nine members wrote to Whistler to demand his resignation. At the annual meeting on June 4, he was defeated for reelection by a vote of 18–19, with nine abstentions. Whistler and twenty-five supporters resigned, while the anti-Whistler majority (in his view) was successful in purging him for his “eccentricities” and “non-English” background.
In 1890 Whistler published the book “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”, which had mixed success, but assisted in his popularity. It was also this year that Whistler met his most important collector – Charles Lang Freer. 9 years later, Freer would introduce Whistler to Richard Albert Canefield, who would be the second largest collector of Whistler’s art before his death in 1903.
In the years leading up to his death, Whistler founded an art school, but with his failing health and infrequent appearances, the school closed.
On the death of Whistler, friends of his set about writing a biography of his life which was published in 1908. His sister in law, who was left the majority of his unsold works, spend the rest of her life defending his reputation and managing the assets. A lot of this work was eventually donated to Glasgow University.
Whistler was a highly interesting man and artist. Defining his work to be like music but in vision. Utilising the limited pallet to present a balance and harmony within his art, and while his mother was a huge factor in his life, which also led to being his most famous work, you can definitely see, there was much more to Whistler than just his mother.