James Abbott McNeill Whistler

John Florens | Dec 10, 2023

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James Abbot McNeill Whistler (James Abbot McNeill Whistler, sometimes McNeill, 11 July 1834, Lowell, Massachusetts, USA - 17 July 1903, London, Great Britain) was an American artist, master of painted portraiture as well as etching and lithography. One of the well-known Tonalists - forerunners of Impressionism and Symbolism. Adherent of the concept "art for the sake of art". Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (1892).

He studied in the Russian Empire and the USA, but spent most of his active life in England. He is best known for portraits of his contemporaries. He was influenced by realists in the person of his friend Gustav Courbet and Pre-Raphaelites, as well as Japanese art. In a number of creative methods he was close to impressionism. One of Whistler's most famous works is a portrait of his mother: "Arrangement in Gray and Black. The Artist's Mother." Influenced two generations of artists in Europe and the United States. He was friends with Dante Rossetti, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Aubrey Beardsley, the poets Stéphane Mallarmé and Oscar Wilde.

New England (1834-1842)

James Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1834, the first child of Anna Whistler, a housewife, and George Washington Whistler, a railroad engineer. James lived the first three years of his life in a modest house, No. 243 Worthen Street, in Lowell, where the Whistler House Museum of Art now stands. But, on one occasion, during a trial against the philosopher Ruskin, he declared that his birthplace was St. Petersburg, Russia: "I should have been born whenever and wherever I wanted, and I would not have chosen Lowell.

In 1837 the family moved from Lowell to Stonington, Connecticut, where James's father worked on the Stonington railroad. It was a difficult period for the family - three children died in infancy. In 1839, the Whistler family's financial situation improved considerably when the father was appointed chief engineer of the Boston-Albany Railroad. The family built a house in Springfield (the house now houses the Wood History Museum), where they lived until they left for Russia. The move to St. Petersburg took place in the winter of 1842

As a child, James Whistler was a cranky child. His parents found that drawing fascinated him and helped to focus his attention. In later years, he used his mother's connection to the American South to represent himself as an impoverished Southern aristocrat.

Russia and England (1842-1849)

After moving to Russia in 1842, the young Whistler took private lessons in painting, including with the artist Alexander Koritsky, and then, at the age of 11, enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Arts. In 1844, James' work was seen by the famous painter William Allan, who came to Russia after being commissioned to paint a history of the life of Peter the Great. Whistler's mother noted in her diary: "The great painter said: "Your boy has an extraordinary genius, but do not force him beyond his inclinations."

In 1847-1848 the family spent some time in London with relatives while the father worked in Russia. Whistler's son-in-law, physician and artist Francis Hayden, encouraged his interest in art and photography. Hayden took James to meetings with collectors, to lectures on art, and gave him a set of watercolors. The young Whistler was already planning a career as an artist - he began collecting art books and studying the methods of other artists. When artist William Boxall (English) (Russian) painted his portrait in 1848, Whistler exclaimed that the portrait was "very beautiful and vivid.

At the age of 15, James solidified his desire to become an artist and informed his father in a letter: "I hope, dear father, you will not object to my choice. In 1849, however, at the age of 49, George Washington Whistler died of cholera in St. Petersburg, and the family returned to his mother's hometown of Pomfret, Connecticut. This affected, albeit temporarily, Whistler's career plans. The family began to live very modestly; while in St. Petersburg there were always servants in the house, in Pomfret James and his brothers had to do without them. The family needed money and his mother wanted James to choose a more stable profession than that of an artist.

Study at the United States Military Academy (1849-1854)

Hoping that her son would become a minister, his mother sent him to Christ Church Hall School, where Whistler became known among his classmates for drawing caricatures. It soon became clear that a religious career did not suit Whistler, so he applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where some relatives had graduated and where his father had previously taught drawing. Despite his severe myopia and failing health, he was admitted in July 1851, in large part because of his family name.

Whistler was nicknamed "Curly" because of the length of his hair, which exceeded the norm. In addition, he often disobeyed his superiors and sarcastically mocked the academy order. Colonel Robert E. Lee, superintendent of West Point, was to some extent lenient toward Whistler. Thus, he let him go on short leave to say goodbye to his mother before she sailed from New York for Europe. In the spring of 1853, when Whistler became seriously ill with rheumatism and doctors also suspected tuberculosis, he was allowed to skip his examinations and take them later. But his grades were extremely poor: after the August exams, he was 37th in math, 13th in French, but 1st in drawing. And as a result, he was 32nd in overall achievement. During his three years at the academy his grades were hardly satisfactory; in practice it was painful to look at him.

The reason for his expulsion from the academy was his failure on a chemistry exam, when, when asked about silicon, Whistler answered, "Silicon is a gas. As he himself later put it, "If silicon were a gas, one day I'd be a general. Whistler appealed for a retake on the grounds that two other cadets with lower scores had not been expelled, but Superintendent Lee rejected it, although he tried hard to find formal reasons for the retake. In a letter to General Totten on July 8, 1854, he wrote that although the other two cadets had worse grades, they tended to improve, while Whistler's tended to go down.

Whistler was dismissed in June 1854. The main thing Whistler learned at West Point was drawing and cartography from the American artist Robert Weir.

First Work (1854-1855)

After West Point, Whistler got a job as a coastal cartographer with the U.S. Coast Survey. The work was boring, and he was often late or absent, spending most of his free time playing billiards. After it was discovered that he was drawing sea snakes, mermaids and whales on the margins of maps, Whistler was transferred to the engraving department. But he only lasted two months there, although he did learn the techniques of etching and engraving, which later came in handy.

At this point Whistler was determined to choose art as a career. For several months he lived in Baltimore at the home of a wealthy friend, Tom Winans, who supplied him with a studio and gave him some money. The young artist made some useful contacts in the art community, and also sold several early paintings to Winens. All of his mother's requests to pursue other, more practical careers, Whistler rejected and informed her that he was going to continue his artistic studies in Paris with Winens' money. After leaving for Paris, Whistler never returned to the United States.

Study in Paris (1855-1858)

Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855, rented a studio in the Latin Quarter and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. He soon had a French friend, a dressmaker named Eloise. For some time, he studied traditional painting techniques at the Ecole Impériale and at the studio of Charles Glair. The latter was a great admirer of Ingres' work and impressed Whistler with two principles that he used for the rest of his career: line is more important than color, and black is the primary color of tonal harmony. Twenty years later, the Impressionists would largely reject this philosophy, calling black and brown "forbidden colors" and emphasizing the superiority of color over form.

Whistler preferred to do things on his own (including copying paintings at the Louvre) and enjoy life. While letters from home reported his mother's dire financial situation, in his first year in Paris Whistler spent his money freely, did not try very hard to sell paintings and was in debt. To alleviate his financial situation, he began selling copies made in the Louvre and moved to a cheaper neighborhood. As luck would have it, the arrival in Paris of George Lucas, another wealthy friend, corrected Whistler's financial affairs for a time. Despite this "respite," the winter of 1857 was not an easy one for him. His poor health, exacerbated by excessive smoking and alcohol consumption, plagued him.

Financial affairs and health had improved somewhat by the summer of 1858. Whistler recovered and traveled with the artist Ernest Delanno through France and the Rhineland region. With the help of the French master printmaker Auguste Delatre (fr.) (rus.), he created a series of etchings known as the French Set. That year he painted his first self-portrait, "Portrait of Whistler in Hat," a dark work in the style of Rembrandt. But the most significant event of the year was his friendship with Henri Fantin-Latour, whom he met at the Louvre. Through him Whistler joined Gustave Courbet's circle of acquaintances, which included Carolus-Durand (later a teacher of John Sargent), Alphonse Legros and Edouard Manet. Also in this group was the poet Charles Baudelaire, whose ideas and theories of "modern" art greatly influenced Whistler. Baudelaire challenged artists to scrutinize the brutality of life and nature, and to portray it with faith, avoiding the old themes of mythology and allegory. Theophile Gautier, one of the first to explore the transitional qualities in art and music, may have inspired Whistler to consider the visual arts from a musical perspective.

London (1858-1861)

In 1858, influenced by the realism of his new acquaintances, Whistler painted his first exhibition work, La Mere Gerard (Mother of Girard). And in 1859, in London, where he was spending more and more time, he painted At the Piano, which shows his niece, Annie Hayden, and her mother in her London home in the music room. The critic wrote: "despite the recklessly bold manner and sketchiness of the wildest and roughest kind, a genuine sense of color and a splendid power of composition and design that show an understanding of nature that is very rare among artists. The work is unsentimental and effectively contrasts a mother in black and a daughter in white, and the other colors are maintained in the manner recommended by his teacher, Gleir. The work was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts the following year and, later, in many other exhibitions.

In the second painting, made in the same music room in his brother's house, Whistler demonstrated his natural penchant for novelty by creating a genre scene with an unusual composition and angle. It was later renamed Harmony in Green and Pink: The Music Room. This painting also demonstrated Whistler's style of work, especially with portraits: a quick start, serious changes, a period of neglect, and then a final, often in frantic mode, revision.

After a year spent in London, in 1860 he produced a set of etchings entitled The Thames as a contrast to his 1858 French Set and also painted a number of Impressionist works, including The Thames in the Ice. At this stage in his life he began to consolidate his technique of tone harmony, based on a limited, predetermined palette.

He was a frequent and welcome guest at the home of the architect Robinson (whose daughters Agnes Mary Frances and Frances Mabel were also writers), which became a central meeting place for artists and writers of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, such as: William Michael Rossetti, William Morris, William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Simons, Ford Madox Brown, and Matilda Blind.

In 1861, after returning to Paris for a while, Whistler painted his first famous work, Symphony in White No. 1: Girl in White. The portrait of his mistress and art agent Joanna Heffernan was created as a simple sketch in white. However, the public reacted differently to this picture. Critic Jules-Antoine Castagnari considered the painting an allegory of the bride's lost innocence. Others linked it to the popular novel of the time, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, or other literary works. In England, some believed the painting was painted in the Pre-Raphaelite manner. In the painting, Heffernan holds a lily in his left hand and stands on a wolf-skin rug (which some interpreted as masculinity and lust), while the wolf's head stares menacingly at the viewer. The portrait was rejected for exhibition at the conservative Royal Academy, but was shown in a private gallery under the title Woman in White, after the title of a novel by Wilkie Collins. In 1863, the work was shown at the Salon des Outcasts in Paris, an event organized by Emperor Napoleon III to exhibit works rejected from the Salon.

Whistler's painting was widely acclaimed, despite the scandal of another, more shocking painting by Manet, Breakfast on the Grass. Contrary to criticism from traditionalists, Whistler's supporters insisted that the painting was "a phenomenon with spiritual content" and that it embodied his theory that art should be concerned mainly with the arrangement of colors in harmony rather than a literal depiction of the natural world.

Two years later Whistler painted another portrait of Hiffernan in white, this time showing an interest in Asian motifs, which he called Symphony in White No. 2: Girl in White. His The Lady of Lijsen Manor and The Golden Screen, both completed in 1864, again depict Jo in even more expressive Asian dress and setting. During this period Whistler became close to Gustave Courbet, one of the founders of French realism, but their relationship began to break down after Whistler learned that Hiffernand posed nude for Courbet. In January 1864 Whistler's mother, a very religious and moral woman, arrived in London and became extremely upset when she saw her son's bohemian life. This led to tension in the family. Whistler wrote to Henri Fantin-Latour: "An extraordinary shock! I had to clean out my house and clear it from the cellar to the roof." He also relocated Hiffernan to another place.


In 1866 Whistler decided to visit Valparaiso in Chile, a trip that puzzled many, although Whistler claimed to have done so for political reasons. Chile was at war with Spain, and perhaps the artist thought it was an act of heroic struggle by a small nation against a larger one, but there is no evidence for this theory. During the voyage he painted his first three night paintings, harbor scenes in a blue or light green palette - "moonlight" paintings, which he later called "nocturnes." Returning to London, he painted several more nocturnes over the next ten years, most of which depicted the Thames and the gardens of Cremorne, an amusement park known for its fireworks shows, which in turn posed a new challenge for painters. In his nautical nocturnes Whistler used heavily diluted paint as a primer, but he also painted objects--ships, lights, and shorelines--with diluted paint. Some of Thames's paintings show compositional and thematic similarities to Hiroshige's Japanese works .

In 1872, Whistler thanked his patron Frederick Leyland, an amateur musician who adored Chopin, for his musically inspired painting titles.

At the same time, Whistler painted another self-portrait, which he called Arranging in Gray: An Artist's Portrait (c. 1872), and began renaming many of his earlier works using musical terms such as nocturne, symphony, harmony, etude or arrangement to emphasize tonal qualities and composition, and to level out the narrative element of the paintings. Whistler's Nocturnes have become some of his most innovative works. Showing 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. His good friend Henri Fantin-Latour, who had become more reactionary in his opinions, especially in his negative views of the new Impressionist school, found Whistler's new works unexpected and disconcerting. Fantin-Latour confessed, "I don't understand anything there; it's strange how the man changes. I don't recognize him anymore." By then their relationship had almost ceased, but they continued to share opinions in correspondence. When Edgar Degas invited Whistler to participate in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, Whistler, like Manet, declined the invitation, and some critics have attributed this, in part, to the influence of Fantin-Latour on both of them.


The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 divided the French art community. Many artists took refuge in England, joining Whistler, including Camille Pissarro and Monet, while Manet and Degas remained in France. Like Whistler, Monet and Pissarro concentrated their efforts on urban landscape work, and it is likely that Whistler was influenced by the style of these Impressionist painters, and this was reflected in his nocturnes. Eventually Whistler distanced himself from Courbet's "cursed realism," and their friendship faded, as did his connection with Joanna Hiffernan.

By 1871 Whistler had returned to portraits and soon produced his most famous painting, an almost monochrome full-length figure titled Arranged in Gray and Black, but it is usually called Whistler's Mother. According to a letter from his mother, one day one of the sitters did not show up for her scheduled session, and Whistler suggested that his mother paint her portrait. At first she posed standing up, but it proved too tedious for her. The painting took dozens of posing sessions.

The portrait is simple and austere, with a limited palette. But the deceptively simple design actually balances the various forms in the painting--the rectangle of the curtain, the drawing on the wall, and the floor--and the lines of the face, dress, and chair. Whistler noted that the narrative aspect of the painting was not important, but the painting pays homage to his pious mother. After the initial shock of her son's lifestyle, she helped him a great deal by somewhat placating his behavior, caring for his inner needs, and creating an aura of conservative respectability that helped win over patrons.

The public reacted negatively to the painting, mainly because of its anti-Victorian simplicity, but sentimentality and bright colors were in vogue in England at the time. Critics thought the painting was a failed "experiment," but by no means art. The Royal Academy rejected the painting for exhibition, but then reluctantly accepted after lobbying Sir William Boxall to hang it in the unfortunate location of the exhibition.

From the beginning, Whistler's Mother elicited various reactions, including parodies, ridicule, and admiration, which continue to this day. Some considered the canvas a "tribute to old age," a "heavy sense of grief," or a "perfect symbol of motherhood," while others used it in various parodies: on greeting cards, in magazines, and even cartoons about Donald Duck and Bullwinkle the Moose. Whistler made a significant contribution to popularizing the painting, frequently exhibiting it and allowing reproductions to be made, which sold well. The painting narrowly escaped fire during its delivery by train. It was eventually purchased by the French government, and became Whistler's first work in a public collection. It is now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

During the Great Depression, the painting was valued at one million dollars and was a great success at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. The public, who were not familiar with Whistler's aesthetic theories, strongly recognized the painting as a symbol of motherhood.

In 2015, New York critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote that the picture "remains the most important American work outside the United States."

Other portraits

Other significant brush portraits by the artist include those of his mistress Maud Franklin (1876), historian Thomas Carlyle (1873), London banker Cecily Alexander's daughter (1873), Lady Mier (1882), and critic Theodore Duret (1884). In the 1870s Whistler painted full-length portraits of Frederick Leyland and his wife Frances. Leyland later commissioned the artist to decorate his dining room, which was called the Peacock Room.

Whistler was disappointed with the irregular acceptance of his work for exhibitions at the Royal Academy and the poor placement of paintings in the exhibition halls. In 1874 Whistler organized his first solo exhibition. It aroused public interest, including the unusual decorations of the rooms for the time, which were stylized and harmonized with the paintings in accordance with his theories of art. The critic wrote: "On entering the gallery the visitor will be struck by a strange sense of harmony and physicality, and this overall effect is perhaps even more interesting than each work individually.

Whistler was not as successful a portrait painter as another famous American, John Sargent. This was partly due to Whistler's economical technique and his reluctance to flatter his models. He worked very long hours and required extremely long posing sessions. William Chase, whose portrait Whistler painted, complained, "He turned out to be a real tyrant, posing every day until dusk, my limbs aching with fatigue and my head spinning from it all. "Don't move! Don't move!" he shouted whenever I wanted to take a break." By the time Whistler gained wide acclaim in the 1890s, his time as a portrait painter was over.

Whistler's approach to portraiture in his later work was described by one of his models, Arthur Eddy, who posed for the artist in 1894:

The etchings

Whistler produced numerous etchings, lithographs, and dry-needle works. In lithographs the artist depicted a variety of objects and landscapes: some have lightly draped drawings, others are Thames landscapes, among which are two or three of his best works, including Nocturne at Limehouse, while others depict Faubourg Saint-Germain in Paris and the Georgian churches in Soho and Bloomsbury in London. His etchings include portraits of family, mistresses and street scenes in London and Venice. The number of his lithographs, some executed on stone, others directly on lithographic paper, is perhaps half that of the etchings.

Over time, Whistler acquired a fine reputation as an engraver. Martin Hardy wrote: "There are some who place him alongside Rembrandt, perhaps even above Rembrandt, as the greatest master of all time. Personally, I prefer to think of them as Jupiter and Venus, the greatest and brightest among the planets in the heavens of engraving." Whistler was very reverent about printing etchings and his choice of paper. Early and late in his career he placed great emphasis on line purity, though in his middle period he experimented more with ink and tone.

Monogram butterfly signature

Whistler's famous butterfly first appeared in the 1860s due to his interest in Asian art. He studied pottery signatures on porcelain, which he began collecting, and decided to depict a monogram of his initials. Over time, this evolved into the form of an abstract butterfly. By 1880, he added a sting to the image of the butterfly as a symbol reflecting his gentle, sensitive nature and his feisty, irritable spirit. He was very attentive to the proper placement of the signature on both his paintings and his commissioned frames. His attention to the importance of balance and harmony extended from the frame to the placement of his paintings in the exhibition space, as in the Peacock Room.

The Peacock Room (1876-1877)

"Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room" is Whistler's masterpiece in interior decorative painting. Whistler decorated the room in a single, rich palette: blue-green panels with glazing and gold leaf. The mural, executed in 1876-1877, is considered one of the greatest surviving aesthetic interiors and the best example of the Anglo-Japanese style. Dissatisfied with the first design by Thomas Jekyll (1827-1881), Frederick Leyland, Whistler's patron at the time, commissioned him to restore the room. The plan was for him to make minor alterations to "harmonize" the room in which Leyland's porcelain collection was displayed. Whistler's painting The Princess from the Land of Porcelain hung on the north side - above the fireplace - and served as the centerpiece of the room. Whistler, however, gave free rein to his imagination. He completely painted over the fourteenth-century leather wallpaper formerly owned by Catherine of Aragon, for which Leyland had paid £1,000, and made significant changes to the room's design. Leyland was shocked by the "improvements." The artist and the patron quarrelled over the room and proper compensation for the work.

In 1904, Charles Freer, an American industrialist and art collector, purchased The Princess from Porcelain Country, and anonymously bought the entire room as well from Leyland's heirs, including Leyland's daughter and her husband, British artist Val Prinsep. Freer moved the Peacock Room to his Detroit mansion, and after his death in 1919 it was installed in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

The Trial of John Ruskin (1877-1878)

In 1877 Whistler sued the critic John Ruskin for libel after the critic condemned his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold. Falling Rocket." The work was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, an alternative exhibition to the Royal Academy, along with works by Edward Burne-Jones and other artists. Ruskin, who was a supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites and William Turner, criticized Whistler's work in his letters to the Fors Clavigera on July 2, 1877, although he praised the work of Burne-Jones:

Whistler wrote to his friend George Boughton: "This is the most humiliating criticism I have ever encountered. The harsh criticism of Ruskin, the leading Victorian art historian, provoked a storm of indignation from the owners of other Whistler works. Soon enough, the artist's works became unpopular, affecting his financial well-being. Together with a lawyer, he drafted a libel suit, which was served on Ruskin. Whistler hoped to receive compensation of £1,000 plus legal costs. Because of Ruskin's bouts of mental illness, the case was not taken to court until the following year, while Whistler's financial condition continued to deteriorate.

The suit was heard in the Treasury Division of the High Court on November 25 and 26, 1878, before Baron Huddleston and a special jury. Sir John Holker, solicitor to John Ruskin, questioned Whistler:

Whistler had counted on many artists to testify in his defense, but they declined, fearing for their reputations. His other witnesses were unconvincing, and the jury's reaction to the painting was mocking. Against Ruskin's more persuasive witnesses, including Edward Burne-Jones, and with the absence, due to illness, of the art historian himself at many sessions, Whistler's counterattack was of little effect. Nevertheless, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the artist, but awarded nominal compensation of one farthing, and the court costs were divided between the parties to the suit. The legal costs, together with the enormous debts from the construction of his residence ("White House" on Tite Street in the Chelsea district of London, designed by Edward Godwin, 1877-1878), forced Whistler to declare bankruptcy on May 8, 1879, which resulted in an auction to sell his collection and property, including the house.

In December 1878 Whistler published his account of the trial in Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Historians, later included in The Fine Art of Making Enemies (1890). Whistler's hope that the publicity of the trial would save his career was dashed as he lost his patrons because of the trial. One of them was Frederick Leyland, also his creditor, with whom they quarreled over the Peacock Room. Whistler always blamed Leyland for his financial ruin.

Trip to Venice (1878-1879)

After the trial, Whistler received an order from Venice for twelve engravings. He readily accepted the offer and arrived in the city with his friend Maud, renting rooms in a dilapidated palazzo which they shared with other artists, including John Sargent. Despite his homesickness for London, he became accustomed to Venice and set about "discovering" its character. Whistler did his best to distract himself from thoughts of his financial affairs and the impending sale of all his paintings and belongings at Sotheby's auction. The artist was a regular guest at parties at the American Consulate and charmed guests with speech patterns such as "the only positive virtue of the artist is idleness, and so few are talented at it."

His new friends, however, noted that Whistler got up early and worked all day. He wrote to a friend, "I have learned to recognize Venice in Venice, which others never seem to have perceived, and which I will 'bring' upon my return, as I presume will serve more than good compensation for all, annoying spirit, delays and trouble." The three-month assignment in Venice stretched over fourteen months. During this exceptionally productive period, Whistler completed over fifty etchings, several nocturnes and watercolors, and over 100 pastels, depicting both the mood of Venice and its beautiful architecture. In addition, Whistler influenced the American art community in Venice, especially Frank Duveneck (and Duveneck's "boys") and Robert Blum, who imitated Whistler's vision of the city and then spread his methods and influence in America.

Return to London (1879-1903)

On his return to London, Whistler's pastels sold particularly well, about which he said: "They are not as good as I supposed. They sell!". Despite his active participation in exhibitions, success was not great. Although Whistler was still in a tight financial spot, he was encouraged by the attention and admiration he received from a younger generation of English and American artists who made him their idol and used the title "Whistler's Apprentice" universally. Many of them returned to America and spread tales of Whistler's provocative egotism, wit, and aesthetic pronouncements--creating a legend, to his great satisfaction.

In 1885 Whistler published his first book, The Ten o'clock Lecture, which is the basic statement of his concept of "art for art's sake. The prevailing view at the time was the opposite, the Victorian view, namely that art had a moral or social function. For Whistler, however, art was an end in itself, and the artist's responsibility was not to society but to himself, to interpret nature through art and not to reproduce what he saw. In addition, he stated, "Nature is very rarely right and must be improved by the artist through his own vision." The poet and writer Oscar Wilde, despite disagreeing with Whistler on a number of issues, including Wilde's conviction that poetry is a higher art form than painting, was generous in his praise and considered the book The Ten o'clock Lecture a masterpiece:

Whistler, however, considered himself ridiculed by Wilde and began a public correspondence with him that led to the termination of their friendship. Later, Wilde took another jab at Whistler, making him the prototype of the murdered artist in his novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

In January 1881 the artist's mother, Anna Whistler, died. Whistler, in honor of her mother, took her maiden name "McNeil" as her middle name.

In 1884 Whistler joined the Society of British Artists and was elected its president on June 1, 1886. The following year, during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, Whistler presented the Queen, on behalf of the Society, with a skilfully crafted album that included a voluminous speech and illustrations of his own creation. Queen Victoria was so delighted with the "beautiful and artistic work" that she decreed "that the Society should be called the Royal Society. This achievement was praised by the members of the Society, but it was soon overshadowed by the controversy that inevitably arose with the Royal Academy of Arts. Whistler suggested that the members of the Royal Society withdraw from the Royal Academy. This caused discord in the Society's ranks, which overshadowed Whistler's achievements and in May 1888 nine members spoke in favor of his resignation. On June 4 he was removed by nineteen votes in favor, with eighteen against and nine abstentions. Whistler and twenty-five of his supporters resigned, while most of his opponents, in his opinion, shrugged off his "eccentricity" and "non-English" background.

In 1888, having broken off his relationship with Maud, Whistler unexpectedly married Beatrice Godwin (also called "Beatrix" or "Trixie"), a former pupil and widow of his friend, the architect Edward Godwin. It was through his friendship with Godwin that he became close to Beatrix, and painted her portrait entitled Harmony in Red: Lamp Light. In the summer of 1888, Whistler and Beatrice appeared in public as a couple. At one dinner, Louise Jopling and Henry Laboucher insisted that they get married as soon as possible. A marriage ceremony was quickly arranged. As a member of Parliament, Laboucher arranged with the chaplain of the House of Commons. For fear of disrupting the ceremony by an enraged Maud Franklin, the wedding was not public and took place on August 11, 1888. But news of the marriage was published in the Pall Mall Gazette, whose reporter was present at the event. Shortly thereafter the couple left for Paris to avoid any scandal with Maud.

Whistler's reputation in London and Paris grew, and he received positive reviews from critics and new commissions for paintings. His book The Fine Art of Making Enemies was published in 1890 with mixed success, but it became a sort of advertisement for his work.

In 1890 he met Charles Freer, who became his patron in America and ultimately his most important collector. Around this time, in addition to portrait painting, Whistler experimented with early color photography and lithography, creating a series depicting London architecture and the human figure, mostly women in the nude style. In 1891, with the assistance of his close friend Stéphane Mallarmé, a painting of Whistler's Mother was purchased by the French government for 4,000 francs. This was much less than an American collector could pay, but it was much more prestigious in Whistler's opinion.

After the cool reception of his solo exhibition in London, which featured mainly his nocturnes, Whistler decided that he had had enough of London. And in 1892, he and Trixie moved to Paris, settling in No. 110 Rue du Bac and setting up a studio in No. 86 Rue Notre Dame in the Montparnasse district. He was in close contact with Monet, Auguste Rodin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Stéphane Mallarmé. Whistler was at the height of his career when it was discovered that Trixie had cancer. They returned to London in February 1896, renting rooms at the Savoy Hotel while medical consultations were underway. He made drawings on lithographic copy paper with a view of the Thames from the hotel window or balcony while he cared for her. Beatrice died a few months later, on May 10, 1896.

In 1899 Charles Freer introduced Whistler to his friend and business colleague Richard Albert Canfield (1855-1914), who became a close friend and patron of the artist. Canfield owned several gambling houses in New York, Rhode Island, Saratoga Springs, and Newport, and had exquisite taste in art. His collection included early American and Chippendale furniture, tapestries, Chinese porcelain, and Bari bronzes. Soon Canfield collected and owned the second largest and most important Whistler collection in the world. A few months before his death, Canfield sold his collection of Whistler etchings, lithographs, drawings, and paintings to American art dealer Roland Knodler for $300,000. Three of Canfield Whistler's paintings hang in the Frick Museum in New York. In May 1901, Canfield commissioned a portrait from Whistler. He began posing for the Portrait of Richard A. Canfield (YMSM 547) in March 1902. According to historian Alexander Gardiner, Canfield returned to Europe on New Year's Day in 1903, and posed every day until May 16, 1903. However, Whistler was already ill and weak at the time, and the work was his last completed portrait. The deceptive air of respectability that the Canfield portrait endowed led Whistler to call it "Your Reverend." The two men corresponded from 1901 until Whistler's death.

During the last seven years of his life, Whistler made several minimalist watercolor seascapes and a final self-portrait in oil. He corresponded with his many friends and colleagues. In 1898, together with Carmen Rossi, he founded an art school called the Carmen Academy, but, due to his deteriorating health, he was forced to close it on April 6, 1901.

Death and Inheritance

Whistler died in London on July 17, 1903, six days after his 69th birthday. He was buried with his wife in the old Chizik Cemetery in the west end of London, next to St. Nicholas Church. The artist's entire estate was left to his daughter-in-law, Rosaline Birney Philip, who spent the rest of her life protecting his reputation and managing his collection, much of which was eventually donated to Glasgow University.


Whistler's cousin wrote that in his youth James was "lean, brooding, thin-faced, with soft brown curls ... he had a somewhat foreign appearance and manners which, through innate ability, made him very charming even at that age.

Whistler had a distinctive appearance, short and thin, with piercing eyes and a curly mustache, often with a monocle and in a lavish dandy outfit. He was often arrogant and selfish toward friends and patrons. A free-thinker and egotist, he enjoyed shocking friends and enemies. Although he could be ignorant and frivolous in social and political matters, he was always serious about art and often provoked public controversy and debate by defending his strong theories.

Whistler had a high, lilting voice and a unique way of speaking, full of calculated pauses. One of his friends said: "In a second you will find that he is not talking--he is sketching out words, creating an impression in sound and meaning that must be interpreted by the listener."


Whistler was well known for his sharp wit, especially in arguments with his friend and rival Oscar Wilde. Both were notable figures in Parisian society, and often acted "as the voice of the town. To their mutual amusement, they were often caricatured in Punch. One day a young Oscar Wilde, at a luncheon at Whistler's, hearing his host make some brilliant remark, said loudly: "I wish I could say it," to which Whistler replied, "You say it, Oscar, you say it!" In fact, Wilde actually publicly repeated many of the witticisms Whistler had said. Their relationship soured by the mid-1880s, when Whistler railed against Wilde and the aesthetic movement. And in 1895, when Wilde was publicly recognized as a homosexual, Whistler openly mocked him. Whistler enjoyed preparing and organizing his receptions, exhibitions, and public events. As one guest remarked:

In Paris, Whistler was friends with members of a circle of symbolist painters, writers, and poets, among them Stéphane Mallarmé. Schwob met Whistler in the mid-1890s through Stéphane Mallarmé, and they had other friends in common, including Oscar Wilde (until they quarreled) and Whistler's son-in-law, Charles Whibley. Besides Henri Fantin-Latour, Alphonse Legros, and Courbet, Whistler was friends with many other French artists. He illustrated Les Chauves-Souris with Antonio de la Gandard. He also knew the Impressionists, particularly Edouard Manet, Monet, and Edgar Degas. As a young artist, he maintained a close friendship with Dante Rossetti, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His close friendships with Monet and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who translated Lecture at Ten o'clock into French, helped enhance Whistler's reputation among the French public. Whistler was friendly with his fellow students at the Gliré studio, including Ignace Schott, whose son Leon Dabo later became his pupil.

Joanna Heffernan and Maude Franklin

Whistler's mistress and model for The Girl in White, Joanna Hiffernand, also posed for Gustave Courbet. Historians speculate that Courbet used her as a model for his erotic painting The Origin of the World, which may have led to a rift between Whistler and Courbet.

During the 1870s and most of the 1880s, Whistler lived with his mistress Maude Franklin. Her ability to endure his long, repetitive posing sessions helped Whistler develop his portrait skills. Not only did he make some excellent portraits of her, but she was also a useful assistant to other sitters.

Anna McNeil Whistler (1804-1881) was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, the daughter of Charles Daniel McNeil (1756-1828), a physician, and Martha Kingsley McNeil, daughter of Sophony Kingsley Sr. (one of the founders of the University of New Brunswick) and the youngest sister of Sophony Kingsley Jr. a slave owner and plantation owner, and husband of Anna Madgene Jai.

George Washington Whistler (1800-1849) was an American railroad engineer. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (1819), was a military topographer. He worked for a long time in Russia on construction of Nikolayevskaya railroad. He died of cholera in 1849 in St. Petersburg.

Brothers and Sisters

Half-brothers and sisters, from his father's first marriage, to Mary R. Swift (Eng. Mary R. Swift; ? - 1827):


Beatrice Godwin

In 1888 Whistler married Beatrice Godwin (1857-1896), whom he called "Beatrix" or "Trixie." She was the widow of architect Edward Godwin, who designed the Whistler White House. She was born into the family of sculptor John Birney Philip and Frances Black. Her sisters Rosalind Philip and Ethel Wibley posed for many of Whistler's paintings and drawings. For example, Ethel posed for Pearl and Silver: An Andalusian Woman (1888-1900). The first five years of their marriage were very happy, but after Beatrice was discovered to have cancer, hard times came. Toward the end of her life, Beatrice lay half asleep most of the time, taking morphine to relieve her pain. Her death in 1896 was a severe blow to Whistler, which he was never able to bear.

Whistler had several children out of wedlock, of whom Charles Hanson is the only one documented. Joanna Hiffernan helped raise Whistler's son, Charles James Whistler Hanson (1870-1935), from an affair with his maid, Louise Fanny Hanson. His other mistress, Mauder Franklin Whistler had two daughters, Ion (b. c. 1877) and Maude McNeil Whistler Franklin (b. 1879). She sometimes referred to herself as "Mrs. Whistler," and the 1881 census records her as "Mary M. Whistler."

Drawing inspiration from many different sources, including Rembrandt, Velázquez, Japanese art and ancient Greek sculpture, Whistler developed his own very influential and individual style. He was a connoisseur of many artistic techniques, producing more than 500 paintings as well as etchings, pastels, watercolors, drawings, and lithographs. Whistler was a leader of aestheticism, promoting, writing and lecturing on the philosophy of "art for art's sake." With his students he advocated simple design, economy of means, avoidance of overly laborious technique, and tonal harmony of the end result. Whistler's paintings have been featured in many major museum exhibitions, studies, and publications. Like the Impressionists, he used nature as an artistic resource. Whistler insisted that it was the artist's duty to interpret what he saw, not to be a slave to reality and "to bring delightful harmony out of chaos.

During his lifetime he influenced two generations of artists, in Europe and in the United States. Whistler exchanged ideas with Realist, Impressionist and Symbolist painters. His famous protégés were Walter Sickert and the writer Oscar Wilde. His Tonalism had a profound influence on many American artists, including John Sargent, William Chase, and Willis Adams, with whom he became friends in Venice. Another significant influence was on Arthur Mathews, whom Whistler met in Paris in the late 1890s. Matthews spread Whistler's tonalism to San Francisco, spawning widespread use of the technique among early-century California artists. As the American critic Charles Kaffin wrote in 1907:

On a trip to Venice in 1880, Whistler produced a series of etchings and pastels that not only improved his financial situation, but also improved the way artists and photographers interpreted the city - focusing on back alleys, side canals, entrance ways and architectural details - and thus capturing the unique atmosphere of the city.

In 1940, Whistler was featured on a U.S. postage stamp as part of a series of 35 stamps dedicated to famous American authors, poets, educators, scientists, composers, artists and inventors: "The Famous Americans Series."

Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta "Patience" teases out aestheticism, and the main character, Reginald Banthorn, is often associated as a parody of Oscar Wilde, although Banthorn is probably a collective image of several prominent artists and writers. For example, he wears a monocle and his dark hair shows a graying like Whistler's.

On October 27, 2010, Swann Galleries set a record price for a Whistler etching. The Nocturne etching (1879-1880) sold for $282,000. It was apparently one of the first etchings Whistler made for the Society of Fine Arts upon his arrival in Venice in September 1879, as well as one of his most famous views of the city.


  1. James Abbott McNeill Whistler
  2. Уистлер, Джеймс
  3. ^ "Image gallery of some of Whistler's well-known paintings and others by his contemporaries". Dia.org. Archived from the original on July 18, 2012. Retrieved July 15, 2013.
  4. 1 2 Архив изобразительного искусства — 2003.
  5. RKDartists (нидерл.)
  6. Kindred Britain
  7. Дана Арнольд. Говорит и показывает искусство: Что объединяет шедевры палеолита, эпоху Возрождения и перформансы. — "Манн, Иванов и Фербер". — 194 с. — ISBN 9785001173861.
  8. ^ May, Philip (January 1945). "Zephaniah Kingsley, Nonconformist (1765–1843)", The Florida Historical Quarterly, 23 (3), p. 145–159.
  9. ^ (EN) The New England Magazine, 29, 35, New England Magazine Company, 1904.
  10. ^ Berman, p. 12.
  11. ^ Anderson, Koval, p. 11.
  12. Musée d'Orsay. Abgerufen am 24. Mai 2023.

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