Whistler, James Abbott McNeill

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Artists

The American-born painter James Whistler is best known for his portrait of his mother. But this famous picture was just one of a huge output that ranged from etchings of river scenes to paintings of night landscapes.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born on July 10, 1834, in Lowell, Massachusetts. When James was 9, his father was hired by the Russian Government to construct a railroad. In St. Petersburg, James was given his first drawing lessons.

The Whistlers returned to the United States in 1849. When James was 17, he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After three years his indifference led to his dismissal. He then worked as a mapmaker and learned the technique of etching. During this period he decided to make art his career.

In 1855, Whistler went to Paris to study painting. Four years later he moved to London. He painted and etched scenes along the Thames River. These pictures—gray, misty, and moody—were influenced somewhat by Japanese prints, of which Whistler was very fond. His landscapes and portraits were very subtle, for Whistler was more interested in capturing moods than in reproducing actual colors.

In 1877 the art critic John Ruskin criticized one of Whistler's paintings. Ruskin accused Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for slander. Technically Whistler won the case, but sentiment was against him, and he was awarded only 1 farthing (less than 1 cent). The costs of the trial bankrupted him.

Whistler then went to Venice to make etchings and pastel pictures. These brought him back into public favor. His later portraits of socially prominent people, still very moody and personal, won him international fame. He enjoyed this fame until his death in London on July 17, 1903.

Reviewed by William H. Gerdts
City University of New York, Graduate School and University Center

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