Fine Artists: James Whistler American Artist 1834-1903

James Whistler painting "Symphony in White No.1: The White Gir"l The American painter, etcher, and lithographer James Whistler created a new set of principles for the fine arts, championed art for art's sake, and introduced a subtle style of painting in which atmosphere and mood were the main focus. Whistler was an American-born, British-based artist. James Whistler used a butterfly as his signature for his paintings.

The butterfly was unique in that it possessed a long stinger on it's tail. Whistler's signature fit him well for it combined both aspects of his personality. Whistler was known to have a difficult public persona, yet his artwork was often delicate like a butterfly.

Appreciating both music and art, Whistler titled many of his paintings "arrangements", "harmonies", and "nocturnes", emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. His most famous painting is the iconic Whistler's Mother, the revered and oft parodied portrait of motherhood. A wit, dandy, and shameless self-promoter, 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 McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA, in 1834. When Whistler was nine his family moved to Russia for five years.

The artist's father, George Washington Whistler was a railroad engineer employed in the building of the St. Petersburg-Moscow railroad. Whistler's mother, Anna Matilda McNeill, was a devout Christian, whom he admired all his life. In his early manhood he exchanged his middle name ‘Abbott’ for her maiden name ‘McNeill’. In St. Petersburg young James Whistler received his first art lessons in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts and also studied French. James Whistler followed the traditional curriculum of drawing from plaster casts and occasional live models. Young Whistler was a moody child prone to fits of temper and insolence, who after bouts of ill-health often drifted into periods of laziness. His parents discovered in his early youth that drawing often settled him down and helped focus his attention. In 1849 Major Whistler died, and Mrs. Whistler returned to the United States with her sons, settling in Pomfret, Connecticut.

James Whistler decided he wanted to go to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which his father had attended. He obtained an appointment in 1851, and while there he excelled in the drawing course but as unable to pass chemistry, and as a result was dismissed in 1854. "Had silicon been a gas," he would say later, "I would have been a major general."

"at The piano" painting by American Artist James WhistlerAt the age of twenty-one, Whistler set off for Paris with the intention of becoming an artist. He rented a studio in the Latin Quarter, and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. James Whistler studied traditional art methods for a short time at the Ecole Impériale and at the atelier of Charles Gabriel Gleyre.

It was here that James Whistler developed the two key elements of his artwork. He believed that line is more important than color and that black is the fundamental color of tonal harmony. At Gleyre’s, Whistler became part of the ‘Paris Gang’, a group of young English artists that included Edward Poynter, later president of the Royal Academy, Thomas Armstrong, Thomas Lamont and George du Maurier.

In 1859, Whistler set to work on his first major painting, "At the Piano", his first masterpiece, which marked the end of his student years and the onset of artistic independence. The painting reflects the bourgeois environment in which he was raised. Whistler consciously imitated the optical effect provided by the stereoscopes popular during his day.

The two definitively separate focal points of mother and daughter makes it is impossible to focus on both simultaneously. The shallow pictorial depth pulls the viewer into the canvas, which exaggerates the effect. It feels almost as if you were holding a book so close to your face that you can't read the words. Compositionally, Whistler keeps the picture from flying apart by the use of strong verticals and horizontals in the picture frames and dado. Even in this early work, Whistler achieved an intimacy between the formal structure and the subject. In most pictures of this genre, the subjects are seated side-by-side happily sharing a musical experience. In "At the Piano", mother and daughter are separated by an impassable abyss caused by Whistler's dual focal points. The impression is one of estrangement and isolation. The painting was rejected by the Paris Salon, but later accepted by the Royal Academy in London, England, in 1860.

Whistler was accepted by Paris as no American painter before him had been. As a young man, he worked with Gustave Courbet. James Whistler enjoyed the respect of Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, though the latter sometimes gave him the sharp edge of his tongue - "Visslair, you behave as though you had no talent." Whistler's painting Wrapping (shown here) shows the influence of Courbet's realism, an art style that seeks to capture reality. One of the figures in the foreground is the redheaded Irish beauty Joanna Hiffernan, known as Jo, who became both Whistler's model and mistress.

James Whistler Painting "Whistler's Mother" "Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother"In 1862 James Whistler started to work on "Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl" (shown at top of page). The model was once again his mistress, Jo. This controversial painting brought Whistler's name to the forefront in the art world. Shown in London first and then in Paris, it provoked a buzz of irrelevant interpretation. The expressionless young woman in virginal white, standing on a wolf skin with a lily in her hand (that floral emblem of the Aesthetic Movement), was declared to be a bride on the morning after her wedding night; or a fallen ex-virgin; or a victim of mesmerism - anything except what she actually was: a model posing in Whistler's studio to give him a pretext to paint shades of white with extreme virtuosity and subtlety

Although The White Girl was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1862 and the Paris Salon of 1863, it was a sensation at the Salon des Refusés, admired by artists though laughed at by the public.In 1863 Whistler leased a house in the Chelsea section of London, where he set up housekeeping with Jo. His mother arrived late that year and spent the rest of her life in England.

Whistler’s mother was both a religious and very proper woman, and her arrival in London, upset her son’s bohemian existence. As he wrote to Henri Fantin-Latour, “General upheaval!! I had to empty my house and purify it from cellar to eaves.” Whistler became a collector of blue-and-white porcelain as well as Oriental costumes, in which he posed his models for such pictures as La Princess du pays de la porcelaine (1864). By 1871, Whistler returned to portraits and soon produced his most famous painting, the nearly monochromatic full-length figure titled "Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother", but usually 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. In his typically slow and experimental way, at first he had her stand but that proved too tiring so the famous profile pose was adopted. It took dozens of sittings to complete. The austere portrait in his normally constrained palette is another Whistler exercise in tonal harmony and composition. The deceptively simple design is in fact a balancing act of differing shapes, particularly rectangles of the curtain, picture on the wall, wall and floor which stabilize the curve of her face, dress, and chair.

Again, though his mother is the subject, Whistler commented that the narrative was of little importance. In reality, however, it was a homage to his pious mother. After the initial shock of her moving in with her son, she aided him considerably by stabilizing his behavior somewhat, tending to his domestic needs, and providing an aura of conservative respectability that helped win over patrons.

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James Whistler
Artist
American painter most famous for his painting "Whistler's Mother"