The biography of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was an American-born, British-based painter and etcher, who assimilated Japanese art styles, made technical innovations, and championed modern art. Many regard him as preeminent among etchers. Averse to sentimentality in painting, he was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake”.

Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA, in July 14, 1834. He spent five years of his childhood (1843-1848) in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father, George Washington Whistler, a railroad engineer, was employed in the building of the St. Petersburg-Moscow railroad. The artist’s mother, Anna Matilda McNeill, was a devout Christian, whom he admired all his life. In his early manhood he exchanged his middle name ‘Abbott’ for her maiden name ‘McNeill’. At the Ruskin trial, Whistler claimed Russia as his birthplace.

In St. Petersburg young James received his first art lessons in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts and also learnt French. After the death of his father in 1849, James Whistler and his mother moved back to her hometown of Pomfret, Connecticut, where James attended the local school until. In 1851, he entered West Point, the famous military academy. West Point at the time was an exclusive school, to which cadets were selected by congressmen. Never becoming a military man, Whistler remembered the three years spent at the academy with affection. In European society, he later presented himself as an impoverished Southern aristocrat.

In 1884 he was elected an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.

In 1888, Whistler married Beatrix, the widow of E. W. Godwin. The five years of their marriage (before her death from cancer) were very happy.

In 1892 he was made an officer of the Legion d'Honneur in France and he became a charter member and first president of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, & Gravers in 1898.

Whistler is best known for the nearly monochromatic full-length figure titled Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, but usually referred to as Whistler's Mother (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Thomas Carlyle (City Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow), Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander (Tate Gallery, London) and Nocturne in Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge. It is a perfect example of Whistler's translations from the Japanese. Its point of origin was probably a woodblock print by Hiroshige.

The painting that made his reputation was earlier, and better. Painted in 1862 it is a portrait of his Irish model and lover, Jo Hiffernan: The White Girl (Symphony in White No. 1). Shown in London first and then in Paris, it caused controversy and provoked a buzz of irrelevant interpretation.

Aside from portraits, Whistler was much occupied in the 1880s with small seascapes in watercolor and in oil. He was well-known for his biting wit, especially in exchanges with his friend Oscar Wilde. Both were figures in the café society of Paris at the turn of the 20th century.

In his later, more Japanese-influenced work, Whistler changed the way people saw the world. His taste for the indefinite, the twilit, set in a matrix of extremely conscious formality, invented a new landscape, as Oscar Wilde acknowledged in 1889:

Whistler published two books which detailed his thoughts on life and art: Ten O'Clock Lecture (1885), and The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890). He was, in turn, the subject of a contemporaneous biography by a friend: the printmaker Joseph Pennell collaborated with his wife Elizabeth Robins Pennell to write The Life of James Mcneill Whistler, published in 1908.

Whistler died in July 17, 1903 in London. He is buried at St Nicholas's Church in Chiswick, London. The house in which he was born is now preserved as the Whistler House Museum of Art.