James Abbott McNeill Whistler
American 19th century painter and printmaker
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1) is often acknowledged as one of the finest makers of etchings and drypoints since Rembrandt. Indeed, many of Whistlers prints demonstrate an affinity to the etchings of Rembrandt, including Whistler’s frontispiece self-portrait to the “French Set” of 1858, which appears to be an interpretation of a well-known Rembrandt etching of 1648, Self-Portrait Drawing at a Window. Collectors early recognized that Whistler was a printmaker of great integrity and were intrigued by the variety of styles and the sketchbook-like nature of his nearly 450 prints. Whistler made many of his etchings directly before his subjects on small prepared copper plates that he carried with him and used in the manner of a sketchbook. Later he might augment the plates, experimenting with various states of the image.
Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but in 1843 he and his family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father worked as a civil engineer on the construction of a railroad. In St. Petersburg, Whistler, at the age of eleven, took his first drawing lessons at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in 1845-46. In 1848, Whistler went to live in London with his sister and her husband, Francis Haden, who was an amateur artist and print maker. With the death of Whistler’s father, he returned to the United States in 1849, and in 1851, he entered the Military Academy at West Point, where he studied drawing. In 1854, he worked for the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey in Washington, D.C., drawing and etching maps of the American coastline, an experience which convinced Whistler that he wanted to become an artist. He moved to Paris in 1855, where he registered at the École Imperiale et Spéciale de Dessin before, in 1856, becoming the student of the Swiss artist, Charles Gabriel Gleyre (1808-1874). In Gleyre’s Academy, he was influenced by the art of Ingres, for whom line was of paramount importance above color. In Paris, Whistler also came under the influences of seventeenth-century Spanish and Dutch artists—particularly Rembrandt, the realism of Gustave Courbet, and the modern art theories of Charles Baudelaire.
Almost immediately after arriving in France, Whistler began etching images of streetscapes and scenes in Paris. In 1858 he produced and published, with the help of French master printer Auguste Delâtre, a portfolio of etchings, Twelve Etchings from Nature, also known as the "French Set." When his painting, At the Piano, was rejected by the Paris Salon in 1859, Whistler moved to London, where he exhibited the painting at the Royal Academy. There he continued to make etchings throughout his life including a group examining the Thames River and its commercial life (the “Thames Set,” 1871) and others documenting his neighborhood in Chelsea that he made soon after moving to London and, especially, in the 1880s. He also produced etchings from his travels through the English countryside; in Venice, with financial support from the Fine Arts Society, (the “First and Second Venice Sets,” 1879; issued 1880 and 1886); in Belgium (the so-called “Belgian Set,” 1887); and in Holland (1889).
In England, Whistler’s art came under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with whom he became close friends, and Whistler’s famous 1863 drypoint, Weary, resulted directly from this influence. Whistler’s 1862 painting, Symphony No. 1, The White Girl, was rejected by both the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon, but was famously exhibited in Paris at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. Whistler also became interested in Japonism, or Orientalism, as well as the English Aesthetic Movement, and in 1869 he began to sign his art with a butterfly monogram, which resembled Japanese potters’ marks and was loosely comprised of his initials. By about 1880, he added a stinger to the Butterfly mark. Perhaps his best-known painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, was painted in 1872, about the time he also began painting night views—his "Nocturnes." One of these, the ca. 1875 Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, was derided by the critic John Ruskin, who wrote that Whistler was asking 200 guineas for "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler’s successful but costly lawsuit of 1877 against Ruskin contributed to his declaration of bankruptcy in 1879. Whistler and his wife, Beatrice Godwin, widow of the architect, Edward W. Godwin, moved to Paris in 1892.
Whistler published his first book, Ten O’clock Lecture, in 1885, in which he espoused his belief in “art for art’s sake” rather than for the sake of any moral or social principle. Whistler joined the Society of British Artists in 1884 and was elected president in 1886. In that capacity, he created for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee his 1887 illustrated Memorial Address, which led to the grant of a royal charter for the Society. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, and was made an officer of the French Légion d'honneur. In 1898, he became a charter member and first president of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers. Whistler moved back to Chelsea in 1902. When he died in 1903, memorial exhibitions were held in Boston and, the following year, by the International Society in London and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
(1) See Lisa N. Peters, James McNeill Whistler (New York, 1996), and Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval, James McNeill Whistle, Beyond the Myth (New York, 1994).