JAMES ABBOTT MCNEIL WHISTLER
1834 – 1903
A strong proponent of “art for art’s sake,” James Abbott McNeill Whistler is renowned for his distinctive and highly original artistic style of using simplified colors and flat, definitive forms, which set him apart from his contemporaries who were still captivated by Impressionism and Realism.
Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834. Until 1848, he lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father, a railroad engineer, was employed in the building of the St. Petersburg-Moscow railroad. In St. Petersburg young James received his first art lessons in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts alongside French.
In 1858, Whistler set out on a tour of Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland, during which he made a set of etchings Twelve Etchings from Nature, better known as the French Set. Praise of the work encouraged Whistler to continue etching. In 1859, Whistler set to work on his first major painting, At the Piano, which marked the end of his student years and the onset of artistic independence, though the work was rejected by the Salon. That same year Whistler moved to London, which remained his base of operations until 1892. From there Whistler made frequent visits abroad.
In 1876, Whistler started the decoration of the famous Peacock Room in the London house of his patron, Frederick Leyland. However, the artist and the patron ended up quarreling bitterly over the room, and the quarrel grew into deep hatred. The loss of Leyland as a patron and the effect of Ruskin’s harsh criticism left Whistler in a bad financial position. In 1879, Whistler declared bankruptcy and left for Venice for the next 14 months. During that stay in Venice, he produced four oils, many etchings, and almost 100 pastels.
Over time, Whistler’s reputation soared. In 1891, Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1: The Artist’s Mother was acquired by the French State and that same year Glasgow Corporation paid a thousand guineas for the Portrait of Thomas Carlyle. Having exhibited at several important international exhibitions, Whistler was awarded honors by Munich, Amsterdam, and Paris.