Whistler, James Abbott Mcneill

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Whistler, James Abbott McNeill

Whistler, James Abbott McNeill, 1834–1903, American painter, etcher, wit, and eccentric, b. Lowell, Mass.

Whistler was dismissed from West Point for insufficient knowledge of chemistry and from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, where he had learned etching and map engraving, for erratic attendance. In 1855 he went to Paris, where he acquired a lifelong appreciation for the works of Velázquez and for Asian art, particularly the Japanese print. From these sources he developed a delicate sense of color and design evident in most of his mature works. His early work was largely inspired by the realism of Courbet. Settling in London in 1859, Whistler became known as an etcher, a wit, and a dandy. The Little White Girl (National Gall. of Art, Washington, D.C.) brought him his first major success in the Salon des Refusés (1863).

To advertise and defend his credo of “art for art's sake,” Whistler resorted to elaborate exhibits, lectures, polemics, and more than one lawsuit. In connection with his Falling Rocket: Nocturne in Black and Gold (Detroit Inst. of Arts) he sued Ruskin in 1878 for writing that Whistler asked “two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.” Whistler explained that the harmonious arrangement of light, form, and color was the most significant element of his paintings. To de-emphasize their subjective content, he called them by fanciful, abstract titles such as Nocturne in Black and Gold, and Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1 (the famed portrait of his mother, 1872; Louvre). Whistler won the argument in court but payment of the court costs left him bankrupt.

Toward the end of his life Whistler won wide recognition for his admirable draftsmanship, exquisite color, and extreme technical proficiency both as painter and etcher. As an etcher he achieved a high reputation. More than 400 superb plates remain. He also excelled in lithography, watercolor, and pastel.

Fine examples of Whistler's painting are in the galleries of London, Paris, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York City. The most representative collection is that in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., which also contains an entire room that he decorated in a style that anticipated art nouveau, for the Leyland home in London—the so-called Peacock Room. Nocturne in Green and Gold, Cremorne Gardens at Night, portraits of Sir Henry Irving, Connie Gilchrist, Theodore Duret, and several others are all in the Metropolitan Museum. Other important works are his portrait of Thomas Carlyle (Glasgow) and Old Battersea Bridge (Tate Gall., London).

Whistler was the author of brilliant critical essays and aphorisms. The lecture published under the title Ten O'Clock (1888) was of enormous influence in art theory. The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890) was a clever selection of snippets from the critics, accompanied by acerbic rejoinders from Whistler.


See the catalog by D. Sutton (1966); biographies by R. McMullen (1973), S. Weintraub (1974, repr. 1988), and D. E. Sutherland (2014); A. M. Young et al., The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler (2 vol., 1980); R. Spencer, ed., Whistler: A Retrospective (1989); R. Dorment and M. F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler (1995).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Whistler, James Abbott Mcneill


Born July 10, 1834, in Lowell, Mass.; died July 17,1903, in London. American painter, etcher, and lithographer.

The son of a military engineer, Whistler spent most of his years in Europe. From 1843 to 1849, he lived in St. Petersburg, where he regularly visited the Academy of Fine Arts; from 1855 to 1859, he was in Paris, studying at the studio of C. Gleyre. He settled in London, residing there from 1859 to 1884 and again from 1896 to 1903.

Whistler was influenced by the style of G. Courbet and by Japanese art, and his work displayed a kinship with that of the French impressionists. His portraits, for example, combine a spare composition with a refined musicality of linear rhythms and tonal harmonies. These qualities are evident in, among other paintings, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862, National Gallery Washington, D.C.); Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: the Artist’s Mother (1871, Louvre Museum, Paris); Miss Cicely Alexander: Harmony in Grey and Green (1872–74, National Gallery, London); and Portrait of Théodore Duret (1883, Metropolitan Museum, New York). A self-portrait, Arrangement in Grey (1871–73), hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In his paintings, Whistler strove for striking pictorial effects. The impression of vibrant movement produced, for example, in his nocturnal landscapes seems at times almost unreal, as in Old Battersea Bridge: Nocturne—Blue and Gold (1872–75, Tate Gallery, London). Whistler was also a master etcher, as demonstrated by the series of etchings he executed in Venice in 1879 and 1880.


In Russian translation:
Iziashchnoe iskusstvo sozdavat’ sebe vragov. [Compiled, translated, and annotated, with an introductory article, by E. A. Nekrasova.] Moscow, 1970.


McMullen, R. Victorian Outsider: James McNeill Whistler. [London-Basingstoke, 1974.
Weintraub, S. Whistler: A Biography. New York, 1974.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.