At the Piano, 1858-1859
Art,  Art Exhibition,  English

James McNeill Whistler – Born under a wandering star

Introduction video credit: Cream color paint video of Artem Podrez from Pexels

From 26th February to 22nd May 2022, Royal Academy of Arts presents the exhibition: Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan. Many of James McNeill Whistler’s works feature the red-haired figure of Joanna Hiffernan. Her close professional and personal relationship with the artist lasted for two decades, yet little about her role or influence in his life has been explored – until now. In this rich exhibition we explore her life and role as a friend, model, lover and collaborator.

Or you can explore the exhibition: James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Chefs-d’œuvre de la Frick Collection, New York at Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France from 08 February – 08 May 2022. This exceptional presentation brings together 22 works including 4 paintings, 3 pastels and 12 etchings from the Frick Collection as well as 3 paintings from the collections of the Musée d’Orsay.

Read more on Whistler & Nature and There is more to Whistler than his Mother…

Whistler suddenly shot to fame like a meteor at a crucial moment in the history of art, a field in which he was a pioneer. It was not by chance that the painter settled in London. Europe was, at the time, the greatest artistic and aesthetic battleground and this artist had a suitably combative temperament. Like the Impressionists, with whom he sided, he wanted to impose his own ideas. Whistler’s work can be divided into four periods. The first was a research period in which the artist was influenced by the Realism of Gustave Courbet and by Japanese art. Whistler then discovered his own originality in the Nocturnes and the Cremorne Gardens series, thereby coming into conflict with the academics who wanted a work of art to tell a story. When he painted the portrait of his mother, Whistler entitled it Arrangement in Gray and Black and this is symbolic of his aesthetic theories. When he painted the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens it was not to depict identifiable figures, as did Renoir in his work on similar themes, but to capture an atmosphere. He loved the mists that hovered over the banks of the Thames, the pale lights, the factory chimneys which at night turned into magical minarets. Night redrew landscapes, effacing the details. This was the period in which he became a precursor and adventurer in art; his work, which verged on abstraction, shocked his contemporaries.

Gold and Brown, 1896-1898, Whistler
Gold and Brown, 1896-1898. Oil on canvas, 62.4 x 46.5 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The third period is dominated by the full-length portraits which brought him his fame. He was able to imbue this traditional genre with his profound originality. He tried to capture part of the souls of his models and placed the characters in their natural habitat. This gave his models a strange presence so that they seem about to walk out of the picture to come towards us. By extracting the poetic substance from individuals, he created portraits described as mediums by his contemporaries, and which were the inspiration for Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Toward the end of his life, the artist began painting landscapes and portraits in the classical tradition, strongly influenced by Velasquez. Whistler proved to be extremely rigorous in constantly ensuring that his paintings coincided with his theories. He never hesitated in crossing swords with the most famous art theoreticians of his day. His famous lawsuit against John Ruskin is an outstanding example. How could two people who were so enamored of aesthetics, so deeply in love with art, find themselves in such violent opposition? Whistler the American sowed ill-feeling into an art world defended by Ruskin, Turner’s friend; it was a great moment.

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, Whistler
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862. Oil on canvas, 213 x 107.9 cm. Harris Whittemore Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

He delivered lectures to explain his theories about art and published a work whose very title is a delight – The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. As a pioneer and forerunner in so many ways, Whistler was one of the first to conceive the idea of the total exhibition. When he held one-man shows, he handled the entire event, from the decor of the location to the attendants’ uniforms, and even the invitation cards, thus maintaining his standards of overall consistency. Whistler – like William Morris in a different way – was among the first to consider interior design as an art form.

He created inspirational decorative backgrounds both for himself and for others. His personality, his outbursts, and his elegance were a perfect focus for curiosity and admiration. A close friend of Stéphane Mallarmé, admired by Marcel Proust who rendered homage to him in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, a provocative dandy in the vein of Beau Brummel or Théophile Gautier, a prickly socialite, a demanding artist, he was a daring innovator.

His life is a cloak-and-dagger romance in the tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac, a rousing adventure which should serve as an inspiration to a young generation.

Wapping, 1860-1864, Whistler
Wapping, 1860-1864. Oil on canvas, 72 x 101.8 cm. Signed and dated: Whistler 1861. John Hay Whitney Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

During the last half of the 19th century, three American artists were to work in Europe, mainly in England and France. Each of them was to play an important role. Mary Cassatt participated in the Impressionist movement in France, John Singer Sargent was to be considered one of the greatest painters of his day, and James McNeill Whistler, to whom this biography is dedicated, was to create a completely original style…

Three of James McNeill Whistler’s famous paintings:

The Artist in his Studio, 1865-1866, Whistler
The Artist in his Studio, 1865-1866. Oil on paper mounted on panel, 62.9 x 46.4 cm. Friends of American Art Collection, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
The Thames in Ice, 1860, Whistler
The Thames in Ice, 1860. Oil on canvas, 74.6 x 55.3 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine), 1863-1865, Whistler
The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine), 1863-1865. Oil on canvas, 201.5 x 116.1 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

See more on Whistler’s artworks here:

Whistler House Museum of Art

Smithsonian American Art Museum

National Museum of Asian Art

The Frick Collection

The Museum of Modern Art

National Gallery of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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