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James McNeill Whistler

'Whistler with a hat', 1859, Hunterian Art Gallery, 46744
Whistler with a hat, 1859
Hunterian Art Gallery,
HAG 46744
The artist James McNeill Whistler (11 July 1834 - 17 July 1903) was born James Abbott Whistler in Lowell, Massachusetts. His parents were George Washington Whistler, civil engineer, and his second wife, Anna Matilda McNeill.


George Washington Whistler's work took the family to Russia in 1843-48. The younger Whistler studied art with a student, A. O. Koritskii, and at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg. When he was ill, he saw a book of Hogarth engravings that made a lasting impression on him. In London, he saw Rembrandt etchings owned by his brother-in-law, Francis Seymour Haden, and Raphael cartoons at Hampton Court.

After his father's death in 1849, the family returned to America. In 1851, Whistler entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, studying art under Robert W. Weir. Lessons included copying from engravings in the West Point collection. However, deficiencies in chemistry and discipline led to his expulsion in 1854. An interlude in the drawing division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Washington, D. C., provided training in etching, the basis of his future career. In 1855 he sailed for Europe to study art, and, while remaining an American citizen, never returned.


He attended classes at the Ecole Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin in Paris, and the studio of Charles Gleyre. He visited the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857, forming a life-long passion for the Dutch masters and Velasquez. In the Musée du Louvre, he met Henri Fantin Latour and, through him, entered the circle of Gustave Courbet, leader of the Realists. His first important painting, At the Piano (YMSM 24), a portrait of his half-sister Deborah Haden and her daughter, was rejected at the Salon in 1859, but admired by Courbet.

In August 1858 a tour of northern France, Luxembourg and the Rhineland resulted in his first set of etchings, Twelve Etchings from Nature, printed with Auguste Delâtre's help in Paris. Whistler's etchings hung at the Salon and Royal Academy in 1859. The success of the 'French Set' of etchings encouraged Whistler to move to London, where he began twelve etchings of the river. In 1862 Baudelaire praised the depiction of contemporary city life in the 'Thames Set'. It was published in 1871. Whistler was established at the forefront of the etching revival.


However, his love of colour, fame, and money, drew him to painting. A realistic oil, La Mère Gérard (YMSM 26), was his first Royal Academy exhibit, in 1861. It was followed in 1862 by The Coast of Brittany (YMSM 37), painted from nature, but with a lighter range of colour and thinner paint. A Thames-side conversation piece, Wapping (YMSM 35), started in 1861, was exhibited successfully at the Royal Academy in 1864. Bought by Thomas Winans, it was one of the first Whistlers exhibited in New York, in 1866.

The model was his red-haired Irish mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, who posed in Paris in 1861 for 'The White Girl', later called Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (YMSM 38). Rejected by the Royal Academy in 1862, it hung in a London gallery. In the first of many published letters, Whistler denied that it represented Wilkie Collins's 'Woman in White' but simply represents a girl dressed in white in front of a white curtain' (Athenaeum, 5 July 1862). Rejected also by the Paris Salon in 1863, it was, with Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, the 'succès de scandale' of the Salon des Refusés. Paul Mantz in the Gazette des Beaux Arts (July 1863) called it a 'Symphonie du blanc'. Whistler adopted this nomenclature publicly for Symphony in White, No. 3 (YMSM 61) at the Royal Academy in 1867.

In 1863 Whistler moved to Lindsey Row, on the Thames in Chelsea, where neighbours included the Pre-Raphaelite, D. G. Rossetti. He maintained contact with the continent, introducing Algernon Swinburne to Manet; travelling with Legros to Amsterdam in 1863 to see the Rembrandts; posing with Manet and Baudelaire for Fantin's Hommage à Delacroix in 1864; and working with Courbet at Trouville in 1865. In 1866, avoiding family and political problems (the arrest of a friend, the Irish activist, John O'Leary) he travelled to Valparaiso, painting his first night scenes, including Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso Bay (YMSM 76).

Art for Art's Sake

In 1865, when the second 'Symphony in White', The Little White Girl (YMSM 52), was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Whistler met Albert Moore, and together they explored the ideals of 'Art for Art's sake'. Whistler, wishing he had been a pupil of Ingres, began a series of paintings of classically draped women and flowers on a musical theme, known as the 'Six Projects' (Freer Gallery of Art) for the shipowner, F. R. Leyland. Leyland also bought La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (YMSM 50), one of several oriental subjects incorporating Whistler's porcelain. A dispute over the signature may have led Whistler about 1869 to develop his butterfly monogram.

After 1870, he abandoned the 'Six Projects' for portraits and night scenes, thinly painted in ribbon-like brush-strokes, with thin washes of paint-like glazes, where detail was subordinated to mood and mass. It was Leyland who in 1871 suggested the title 'Nocturnes' for such 'moonlights' as Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea (YMSM 103).

Arrangement in Grey and Black

In 1871 Whistler painted a deeply felt portrait of his mother, restrained in colour and severe in composition. In 1872 this Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (YMSM 101) barely escaped rejection at the Royal Academy. It was the last painting he exhibited there, yet it entered the Musée du Luxembourg twenty years later and became one of the most famous of American portraits. Seeing it, Thomas Carlyle agreed to pose for a second Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle (YMSM 137), a powerful psychological study. It was the first of Whistler's paintings to enter a public collection, in Glasgow, Scotland.

The artist had parted from Joanna Hiffernan, who helped look after his illegitimate son, Charles Hanson, born in 1870. Maud Franklin became Whistler's model and mistress. She stood in for Mrs Frances Leyland's portrait, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland (YMSM 106) where every decorative detail, from rug to dress, was designed by the artist. Leyland backed Whistler's first one-man exhibition, at a Pall Mall gallery in 1874, where these portraits hung with etchings and pastels.

The Peacock Room

Whistler worked on a decorative scheme for Leyland's London house at 49 Princes Gate from 1876-77. The dining room was transformed into an all-embracing Harmony in Blue and Gold based on peacock motifs, far exceeding Leyland's wishes. He paid half the 2000 guineas asked, and Whistler lost a patron.

He collaborated with Edward W. Godwin on a stand at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1878, and commissioned Godwin to design the 'White House' in Tite Street. As costs escalated, he pursued a lavish life-style, entertaining guests to 'Sunday breakfasts', becoming known as a dandy and wit.

He also defended his aesthetic theories publicly. Writing to the World on 22 May 1878, regarding Nocturne: Grey and Gold – Chelsea Snow (YMSM 174) which was at the Grosvenor Gallery, he explained: 'my combination of grey and gold is the basis of the picture ... the picture should have its own merit, and not depend upon dramatic, or legendary, or local interest'.

Whistler vs Ruskin

The influential art critic, John Ruskin, had singled out Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (YMSM 170) at the Grosvenor Gallery, writing that he 'never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face' (Fors Clavigera, 2 July 1877, pp. 181-213). In the ensuing libel case, Whistler justified the price: 'I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.' He won the case, but was awarded derisory damages without costs. He published Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics, dedicated to Albert Moore (who had appeared in his defence), the first in a series of brown paper pamphlets, in December 1878.

Whistler's financial position was serious. The birth of a daughter to Maud Franklin in February 1879 compounded domestic problems. To raise money he published etchings, including Old Battersea Bridge (K.177), and, helped by the printer Thomas Way, lithographs, such as The Toilet (W.6) a portrait of Maud. He painted expressive watercolours of Nankin porcelain for a catalogue of Sir Henry Thompson's collection (1878). None of these measures sufficed. In May 1879 he was declared bankrupt. His work, including his copper plates, and his collections were auctioned.

The Venice Set

With a commission from the Fine Art Society, London dealers, for a set of twelve etchings, he left for Venice. He stayed over a year, producing 50 etchings and over 90 pastels of back streets and canals, bead-stringers and gondoliers. He joined Frank Duveneck and his students in the Casa Jankowitz, and worked on etchings with Otto Bacher. Such etchings as Nocturne (K.184) were distinguished by a delicate combination of etching and drypoint lines with a surface tone of ink, producing effects akin to monotype.

In pastels such as The Zattere; Harmony in Blue and Brown (M.774) the subject was vignetted, the brown paper setting off expressive line and jewel-like colours. These pastels had considerable influence on the Americans, particularly J. H. Twachtman, and on the Society of American Painters in Pastel founded in 1882.

Exhibited at the Fine Art Society in 1881, framed in three shades of gold, and with the room decorated in reddish-brown, greenish-yellow and gold, the pastels were extensively reviewed. The etchings were shown in London in 1880, arousing considerable discussion on Whistler's technique and subject matter. A further selection was shown in 1883, both in London and at Wunderlich's in New York, in an 'Arrangement in White and Yellow' which greatly influenced later exhibition design. The catalogue, designed by Whistler, maliciously quoted earlier press reviews.

The first Venice set, of twelve etchings, was published in 1880, but printing took over twenty years. The second set, 26 etchings, published by Messrs Dowdeswell in 1886, was printed within a year. Whistler etched but never published several later sets, including a 'Jubilee Set' and an 'East London Set' in 1887, a 'Renaissance Set' in France in 1888, and an Amsterdam set in 1889, 'of far finer quality than all that has gone before – combining a minuteness of detail ... with greater freedom and more beauty of execution than even the last Renaissance lot can pretend to' (letter to M. B. Huish, Glasgow University Library).


He travelled widely in England and Continental Europe, and his work was exhibited in Europe and America. The first watercolour he exhibited in New York, at the Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition in 1883, was Snow, painted in Amsterdam in 1882. In 1884 he painted seascapes in St Ives with his pupils, the Australian born Mortimer Menpes, and the English Walter Sickert. In 1885 he was in Holland arguing with W. M. Chase. Watercolours like Variations in Violet and Grey – Market Place, Dieppe (M.1024) were shown beside those of the Impressionists at the Galerie Georges Petit, in Paris, in 1883 and 1887. He oscillated between London, Paris and Dieppe. In 1901 he filled books with sketches of Algiers and Corsica, and carried out his last etchings, in the streets of Ajaccio.

Whistler alternated between small paintings, only 5 x 8" in size, and full-length portraits of actors and aristocrats, children and collectors. Manet introduced him to the art critic Théodore Duret, who agreed to pose, as an experiment, in modern evening dress, carrying (for colour's sake) a pink cloak, for Arrangement en couleur chair et noir: Portrait de Théodore Duret (YMSM 252). Duret mediated between the artist and the aristocratic Lady Archibald Campbell, and thus saved Arrangement in Black: La Dame au brodequin jaune – Portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell (YMSM 242), shown in the Chicago Columbian Exhibition in 1893.

Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate (YMSM 315), painted in 1884, and showing the violinist spotlit on stage, was exhibited in London, Hamburg, Paris and finally, in 1896, Pittsburgh, where it was bought by the Carnegie Institute, the first American public collection to acquire his work. Exhibiting at International exhibitions in Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Munich, in Chicago and Philadelphia, in Dublin, Glasgow and St. Petersburg, he gained medals and honours.

The 'Ten O'Clock' Lecture

In 1885 he delivered the 'Ten O'Clock' lecture in Prince's Hall (published in 1888), an eloquent exposition of his views on art and artists. Stéphane Mallarmé translated it into French and introduced Whistler to the Symbolist circle in Paris. Extensive correspondence and subjects like Purple and Gold: Phryne the Superb! – Builder of Temples (YMSM 490) document their growing friendship.

In 1886, the Society of British Artists in London, in need of rejuvenation, risked electing Whistler as President. He set out autocratically to reform the Society, raising money, donating an etching for a lottery, revamping the galleries, designing a 'velarium' to soften the light and direct it on the pictures, rejecting sub-standard pictures, and inviting foreigners like Waldo Storey, Alfred Stevens and Claude Monet to exhibit. The Society revolted, and he was forced to resign.

Meanwhile, pastels, oils, drawings and watercolours – like the atmospheric Nocturne in Grey and Gold – Piccadilly (M.862) hung in three one-man exhibitions of 'Notes' – 'Harmonies' – 'Nocturnes' at Messrs Dowdeswells in 1884 and 1886 and at Wunderlich's in New York in 1889. This gave Americans, like Howard Mansfield, Howard Whittemore, and Charles L. Freer, the opportunity to buy their first Whistlers. They flocked to his studio. These collectors also competed in buying Whistler's etchings; Freer formed the greatest of all Whistler print collections, and Mansfield published a full catalogue of the etchings.

Beatrice Whistler

In 1888, Whistler married Beatrice, widow of E. W. Godwin. On honeymoon, Whistler taught her to etch and she organised his etching plates and sales. An artist and designer, she worked beside him, encouraging his pastels of young models, like the Pettigrew sisters, and his etchings and lithographs. Some of his finest lithographs, like The Duet (W.64) of 1894, show Beatrice at home in 110 rue du Bac in Paris. The most poignant, By the Balcony (W.122) and The Siesta (W.124), were drawn as she lay dying of cancer, during his lithography exhibition at the Fine Art Society in 1895. She died in 1896, and her young sister, Rosalind Birnie Philip, became Whistler's ward and inherited his estate.

The Gentle Art of Making Enemies

Whistler's collection of letters and pamphlets on art, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, was published by William Heinemann in 1890. Whistler's butterflies, a sting in their tails, match each document. Another book recorded a lawsuit against Sir William Eden in 1898, which resulted in a change to French law, giving artists control over their work.

In 1896 Whistler was elected first President of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers. Joseph Pennell, Whistler's friend and future biographer, was an active and argumentative committee member. Independent artists from Europe and America were invited to send work to their exhibitions, in 1898, 1899 and 1900, but Academicians were discouraged. Whistler was particularly involved in the selection of prints for the shows. The exhibitions were sparely hung, coherent and effective. Whistler's own exhibits were modest, fluidly painted panels like Green and Silver: The Great Sea (YMSM 518), and severely geometrical shop fronts like Gold and Orange: The Neighbours (YMSM 423).

Final Years

His last portraits, of Freer, the gambler Richard A. Canfield, George W. Vanderbilt and of a young red-haired model, Dorothy Seton, were painted with the forceful brushwork and thin skin of paint, the strong characterisation and subtle colour, which characterised his work.

In his last self-portrait, Brown and Gold (YMSM 440), the pose was based on Velasquez' portrait of Pablo de Valladolid in the Prado. In 1900 it hung in the American section of the Paris Universal Exposition, but he continued to rework it until his death. Painted with nervous flickering brushwork, serious and introspective, it is a deeply moving work. Whistler died in London on 17 July 1903.