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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)

James McNeill Whistler participated in the artistic ferment of Paris and London in the late nineteenth century, crafted a distinctive style from diverse sources, and arrived at a version of Post-Impressionism in the mid-1860s, a time when most of his contemporaries in the avant-garde were still exploring Realism and Impressionism. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Whistler spent part of his youth in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where his father, a civil engineer, advised on the construction of the railroad to Moscow, and Whistler took drawing classes at the Imperial Academy of Sciences. Upon his return home, Whistler entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. He studied drawing with Robert W. Weir but had less success in other subjects; his failure in chemistry led to his dismissal from the academy in 1854. After working in the drawings division of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, where he received his first training in etching, Whistler—already fluent in French from his childhood years in Russia—decided to pursue a career as an artist by studying in Paris.

Whistler arrived in the French capital late in 1855, at least a decade ahead of the great wave of his compatriots who would seek art instruction there. He enrolled in the école Imperial et Spéciale de Dessin (the “petite école”) and in Charles Gleyre’s independent teaching atelier, where Beaux-Arts principles prevailed (and where the future Impressionists, including Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, would study a few years later). Then and thereafter, Whistler’s artistic development would owe less to his formal lessons than to influences outside the academic world. He responded to paintings by Dutch and Spanish Baroque masters, especially Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriël Metsu, and Diego Velázquez, and by contemporary French painters who admired the same traditions, notably Gustave Courbet, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Alphonse Legros. In 1858, Fantin-Latour, Legros, and Whistler proclaimed their allied interests by organizing themselves as the Société des Trois. Whistler also became friendly with Carolus-Duran, Zacharie Astruc, and Félix Bracquemond and was attracted to the innovative art of Édouard Manet, two years his senior, whom he met in the summer of 1861. The writings of Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Thoré (pseudonym for Willem Bürger), which stressed the importance of harmonious picture surfaces, and French painters’ growing interest in Japanese aesthetics would also inform Whistler’s style and philosophy of art.

Whistler had established a connection with London in the late 1840s when he went to live for a year with his half-sister Deborah and her husband, the English physician and etcher Seymour Haden. In May 1859, he decided to settle in London and to work at a distance from his avant-garde French colleagues, although he remained a conduit of ideas between them and his English artist friends. The latter included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and other Pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings influenced Whistler’s and who shared his enthusiasm for Japanese prints and blue-and-white porcelain. Initially, Whistler merely included Asian costumes and accessories as props in his works but, by the mid-1860s, he adopted Japanese principles of composition and spatial organization. His landscapes of those years reveal that he had rejected his earlier commitment to transcribing nature in the manner of Courbet, and was responding instead to formalist imperatives, including flat, decorative surfaces, subtle tonal harmonies, and allusive, rather than literal, subjects. Taking a cue from a critic who had referred to his early portrait of his mistress, The White Girl (1862; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), as a “symphony in white,” Whistler began to envision and entitle his works with the abstract language of music, calling them symphonies, compositions, harmonies, nocturnes, arrangements, and so forth.

During the late 1860s, Whistler struggled to create harmonious multifigured arrangements that would recapitulate his successful experiments with landscapes. By 1871, he had decided to pull back from that ambitious initiative and to concentrate on single-figure subjects. His seminal canvas in this vein was Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871; Musée d’Orsay, Paris). In portraits that followed, including Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Gold Girl—Connie Gilchrist (11.32) and Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Black: Portrait of Théodore Duret (13.20), Whistler continued to emphasize strong silhouettes, elegant contours, and beautiful surface patterns; calibrate the placement of the figure in relation to the edges of the canvas; investigate delicate variations on one subdued hue or a pair of neighboring or contrasting hues; and balance description of appearances with what he perceived to be pictorial necessities.

Whistler invented a monogram signature—a stylized butterfly based on his initials—and always placed it deliberately as a compositional element, not just a maker’s mark. His devotion to overall harmony extended to interior decoration, furniture, and the design of frames and even entire exhibitions. He became a central figure in the Aesthetic movement, which was founded on the philosophy of “art for art’s sake” and emphasized artistic principles, elevated taste, and creative eclecticism in the conception and production of furniture, metalwork, ceramics and glass, textiles and wallpaper, and other objects. He was also an influential printmaker. Whistler’s innovative paintings and pronouncements invited controversy. He famously filed and won a libel suit in 1878 against the aging English art critic John Ruskin, who had accused him of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” when he showed an almost abstract city scene—Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875; Detroit Institute of Arts)—in an exhibition at London’s Grosvenor Gallery in 1877. Whistler was instrumental in establishing the credo of modern art. In 1885—a year before George Seurat‘s emblematic Post-Impressionist canvas, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–86; Art Institute of Chicago), appeared in the French Impressionists’ final group exhibition and announced the end of naturalistic transcription as an avant-garde goal—Whistler proclaimed in his famous “Ten O’Clock” lecture:

Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music.
But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful—as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.
To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano.
That Nature is always right, is an assertion, artistically, as untrue, as it is one whose truth is universally taken for granted. Nature is very rarely right, to such an extent even, that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong: that is to say, the condition of things that shall bring about the perfection of harmony worthy a picture is rare, and not common at all.