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Whistler, James Abbott McNeill (1834-1903)

( Originally Published 1955 )

American expatriate painter and etcher. Born in Lowell, Mass. and active mostly in England, he was one of the most important figures in the development of modern art. Although he never fulfilled his brilliant promise, and his art was uneven and incomplete, his consistent championship of "Art-for-Art's-sake" (see), his incipient tendency toward abstraction (reflected in his non-descriptive titles-nocturnes, arrangements, symphonies), as well as his writing, had a profound effect upon subsequent developments in painting. Part of his youth was spent in Petrograd (1843-48), where his father was building the Petrograd- Moscow railroad and where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. After his father's death, he returned to the U.S. with his mother in 1849, attended school in Connecticut, and entered West Point in 1851. He was dismissed for failure in chemistry in 1854 and worked for a short time for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Service. In 1855 he left for Paris and a career in art, studied in a desultory fashion with Gleyre, and met Courbet, Manet, Monet, Degas, and Fantin-Latour, the latter becoming a close friend. Such early works as Wapping on Thames (1861, private collection, New York), were in the Realistic tradition of Courbet.

Whistler became part of the Impressionist movement in its early phases and his White Girl, Symphony in White No. 1 (1862, Washington), hung in the Salon des Refuses of 1863, was as advanced as those of any of his French contemporaries. Unaccountably, at this historic moment he left the scene of destiny for the inhospitable environment of London, and settled in Chelsea, where he lived most of the rest of his life. He met the Rossettis, Swinburne, Moore, and Wilde, became a brilliant fixture of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, and soon achieved a reputation for advanced art and caustic wit. The impact of Japanese art had diverted him from the realistic aspects of Impressionism to a search for the subtle nuance and precious aestheticism: The Artist in the Studio (1864, Chicago) and Battersea Bridge, Nocturne, Blue and Gold (c.1865, Tate). His portraits of this period, though lacking in strength and sureness of drawing, are sensitive and subtle arrangements: the famous Artist's Mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871, Louvre) and the Thomas Carlyle, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2 (1872, Glasgow).

In 1876 the commission to decorate the dining room of F. R. Leyland's home resulted in the Japanese-influenced Peacock Room (Freer Gallery) and a violent dispute. The following year a series of nocturnes, including the brilliantly Impressionistic, Falling Rocket, Nocturne in Black and Gold (c.1874, Detroit), brought on the famous critical attack by Ruskin and the subsequent suit for libel won by Whistler. Though he defended "Art-for-Art's-sake" with courage and wit, he -lost much of his popularity and in 1879 went into bankruptcy and was forced to sell the contents of his studio. However, largely through the success of his superb etchings, he slowly regained his reputation and, although he painted little in his later years, produced such fine portraits as the Theodore Duret, Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black (1883, Metropolitan) and the Mme Camille d'Avouille (1895, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover) and his fame increased again.

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