Whistler, James Abbott McNeil

Whistler, James Abbott McNeil

(1834–1903) painter, etcher; born in Lowell, Mass. Son of an engineer who was employed by the Czar, after his father's death in St. Petersburg, Russia (1849), he returned to America and attended West Point (1851–54) but failed academically. He moved to Paris (1855–59), then to London where he spent most of the rest of his life. (He never did return to the U.S.A.) By 1862 he was showing his White Girl, a portrait of his mistress, Joanna Heffernan, the first of many controversial works that increasingly depended on subjective coloring and spatial relationships and which he called "symphonies" or "nocturnes"; the most famous of these was Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), more familiar to millions as "Whistler's Mother." In addition to his many oils, watercolors, and pastels, he did several fine series of etchings: The French Set (1858–59); The Thames Set (1859–71); The Venice Set (1880, 1886). He painted the interior of the exotic Peacock Room for the London home of F. R. Leyland (1876–77). After the noted British critic John Ruskin cast aspersions on his art and character, Whistler sued for libel; he won the case for a farthing but was left bankrupt; he made some money from his book about the trial, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890). His flamboyant and acerbic manner often distracted from the genuine artistry behind his work, but in later years the latter has come to be recognized.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.