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Whistler, James Abbott McNeill

Whistler, James Abbott McNeill
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Whistler, James Abbott McNeill

Whistler, James Abbott McNeill (1834-1903). American-born painter and graphic artist, active mainly in England.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in in 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts, the third son of West Point graduate and civil engineer Major George Washington Whistler, and his second wife Anna Matilda McNeill. After brief stays in Stonington, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, the Whistlers moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, where the Major served as an civil engineer for the construction of a railroad line to Moscow. James Abbott was aged nine when his family moved to Russia, and he spent several of his childhood years there, studying drawing at the Imperial Academy of Science.

He soon became an inveterate traveller. In 1848 he went to live with his sister and her husband in London, and after his father's death the following year the family returned to the United States and settled in Pomfret, Connecticut. Whistler enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1851, where he excelled in Robert W. Weir's drawing class. He was dismissed from the academy in 1854 for "deficiency in chemistry", and after brief periods working for the Winans Locomotive Works in Baltimore, and the drawings division of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (he learnt etching as a US navy cartographer), resolved to become an artist and moved to Europe permanently in 1855.

Whistler settled in Paris first, where he studied at the Ecole Impйriale et Spйciale de Dessin, before entering the Acadйmie Gleyre. He made copies in the Louvre, acquired a lasting admiration for Velбzquez, and became a devotee of the cult of the Japanese print and oriental art and decoration in general. Through his friend Fantin-Latour he met Courbet, whose Realism inspired much of his early work. The circles in which he moved can be gauged from Fantin-Latour's Homage to Delacroix, in which Whistler is portrayed alongside Baudelaire, Manet, and others. He quickly associated himself with avant garde artists, and was influenced by Courbet's realism, as well as the seventeenth century Dutch and Spanish schools. With Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros, he founded the Sociйtй des Trois.

After Whistler's At The Piano (Taft Museum, Cincinnati) was rejected at the Salon of 1859 he moved to London, but often returned to France. At the Piano was well received at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1860 and he soon made a name for himself, not just because of his talent, but also on account of his flamboyant personality. He was famous for his wit and dandyism, and loved controversy. His life-style was lavish and he was often in debt. He began work on a series of etchings. There Whistler was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, and he befriended Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oscar Wilde was also among his famous friends.

At The Piano

Whistler greatly admired Dutch masters such as Jan Steen, Rembrandt and Ruysdael. In 1858 he visited Holland to view the Nightwatch. Indeed, he became a frequent traveller to the Netherlands, visiting The Hague, Dordrecht and Domburg and producing numerous etchings of one of his favorite cities: Amsterdam.

Pierrot (Oudezijds Achterburgwal)

He achieved international notoriety when Symphony No. 1, The White Girl was rejected at both the Royal Academy and the Salon, but was a major attraction at the famous Salon des Refusйs in 1863. Thereafter Courbet's influence waned, and Orientalism--and to a lesser extent classicism--became increasingly pronounced elements in his work. Whistler maintained close ties with France during the London years, and painted at Trouville with Courbet, Daubigny, and Monet in 1865.

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl

In 1866 he went to South America, where he painted seascapes in Valparaiso, Chile. After returning to Europe he commenced work on a series of monumental figure compositions for called the Six Projects (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), that reflect the influence of the English artist Albert Moore. In 1869 Whistler began to sign his paintings with a butterfly monogram composed of his initials. In 1872 he painted his well-known Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, that was later acquired by the French government.

Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge


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