James McNeill Whistler

Artist: Whistler, James McNeill

James McNeill Whistler
James McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler RBA (1834 – 1903) was an American artist active during the American Gilded Age and based primarily in the United Kingdom. He eschewed sentimentality and moral allusion in painting and was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake“.

He found a parallel between painting and music, and entitled many of his paintings “arrangements“, “harmonies“, and “nocturnes“, emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. His most famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, commonly known as Whistler’s Mother, is a revered and often parodied portrait of motherhood.

James Abbott Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on July 11, 1834, the first child of Anna McNeill Whistler and George Washington Whistler, and the brother of Confederate surgeon Dr. William McNeill Whistler. His father was a railroad engineer, and Anna was his second wife. James lived the first three years of his life in a modest house at 243 Worthen Street in Lowell.

Nicholas I of Russia learned of George Whistler’s ingenuity in engineering the Boston & Albany Railroad, and he offered him a position in 1842 engineering a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and the family moved to St. Petersburg in the winter of 1842/43.

Whistler was a moody child prone to fits of temper and insolence, and he often drifted into periods of laziness after bouts of illness. His parents discovered that drawing often settled him down and helped focus his attention.

In 1847–1848, his family spent some time in London with relatives, while his father stayed in Russia. Whistler’s brother-in-law Francis Haden, a physician who was also an artist, spurred his interest in art and photography. Haden took Whistler to visit collectors and to lectures, and gave him a watercolour set with instruction. Whistler already was imagining an art career. He began to collect books on art and he studied other artists’ techniques.

Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855, rented a studio in the Latin Quarter, and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. Soon he had a French girlfriend, a dressmaker named Heloise. He studied traditional art methods for a short time at the Ecole Imperiale and at the atelier of Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre. The latter was a great advocate of the work of Ingres, and impressed Whistler with two principles that he used for the rest of his career: that line is more important than color and that black is the fundamental color of tonal harmony.

By 1871, Whistler returned to portraits and soon produced his most famous painting, the nearly monochromatic full-length figure entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, but usually referred to as Whistler’s Mother. A model failed to appear one day, according to a letter from his mother, so Whistler turned to his mother and suggested that he do her portrait. He had her stand at first, in his typically slow and experimental way, but that proved too tiring so the seated pose was adopted. It took dozens of sittings to complete.

In the final seven years of his life, Whistler did some minimalist seascapes in watercolor and a final self-portrait in oil. He corresponded with his many friends and colleagues. Whistler founded an art school in 1898, but his poor health and infrequent appearances led to its closure in 1901. He died in London on July 17, 1903, six days after his 69th birthday. He is buried in Chiswick Old Cemetery in west London, adjoining St Nicholas Church, Chiswick.

Click here to read the VERY long bio of Whistler on Wikipedia.

James Whistler painted many paintings, mostly in the United Kingdom, but he did manage to be quite productive in France. Here are all the places he painted in (a link “” will appear when a specific place is published):

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