On July 11, 1834, James Abbott Mcneill Whistler was the first child of George Whistler and Anna Mcneill, born in Lowell, Massachusetts. His father George Whistler worked as a railroad engineer and was appointed the chief engineer of the Boston & Albany Railroad in 1839. In 1842 Nicholas 1 of Russia offered George a position in St. Petersburg, after learning of his skills, where he would help engineer a railroad. From this, George would later move to St.
Petersburg. As a child James was prone to having fits of anger. His parents soon figured out that the best way to calm him down was to have him draw. James joined his father in St.
Petersburg a year later where he began to take private art lessons and would then enrol in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts at age eleven. While in school James studied a traditional curriculum and enjoyed talking about art with older peers. In 1844 he met Scottish artist Sir William Allen in Russia.
Whistler’s mom had a diary where she wrote what Allen once told her, ” Your little boy has uncommon genius, but do not urge him beyond his inclination”. In 1847-1848 Whistler spent some time in England with his brother-in-law who would take him to lectures and to look at different collectors. It was during this time that James believed he wanted to be an artist. He wrote to his father to let him know of his decision; however, his father died forcing him and his family to move to Connecticut and put his art dreams on hold. Christ Church Hall School is were Whistler would go next; his mom hoped that he would become a minister. However, it soon became clear that becoming a minister was not for him so he applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point where his father had taught drawing and where some of his other relatives had gone.
James was admitted to the school in 1951 even though he had a history of poor health and was nearsighted. Whistler was eventually kicked out of West Point after disregarding the rules on more than one occasion and racking up demerits. After leaving West Point, Whistler worked as a draftsman as his first job. This job required him to map the entire U.
S. coast for the military. He would soon find this job to be quite boring so he would often show up late or not show up at all. Whistler would also begin to draw sea serpents, mermaids, and whales in the margins of the maps. Doing this caused him to be transferred to the etching division of the U.S Coast Survey.
Though he would only last a few months there he had picked up on the idea of etching which would prove useful in his career later on in his life. After his failed attempts at other jobs and careers Whistler finally figured out that he wanted to pursue art as a career. After gaining some money from selling some paintings he decided to head to Paris to receive more training.
In 1855, Whistler would reach Paris and rent a studio in the Latin Quarter. At Ecole Impériale and at Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre’s studio Whistler studied traditional art methods for a time. He often went to the Louvre to copy the pictures there as his practice.
Even though he was receiving letters from his mother about her finances Whistler spent his money freely and started building up debt after not selling any of is art during his first year in Paris. He eventually started making some money by selling copies and painting he made at the Louvre and by moving into cheaper housing. Though soon he would begin to slow down during the winter of 1857 because of his poor health which was made worse from his excessive smoking and drinking. He recovered that summer and was able to travel through France and the Rhineland with a fellow artist named Ernest Delannoy. It was during this time that Whistler made his first self-portrait, “Portrait of Whistler in a Hat”.
Through Henri Fantin-Latour Whistler was able to meet Gustave Courbet, Alphonse Legros, Edouard Manet, and Carolus-Duran. Whistler was also able to met Charles Baudelaire, his ideas and theories would influence Whistler in his later work. In 1858 Whistler painted his first exhibited art, “La Mere Gerard”. It reflected the ideas and theories of realism that he had adopted from his new group of artist friends.
In 1859 he painted, “At the Piano” which was well received at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1860. While this painting did help Whistler make a name for himself it was not the only reason he became famous. He was known for his outlandish personality and for his love of controversy. Whistlers art was the complete opposite of his wild personality.
His art was usually discret and subtle. It was also during this time that Whistler began to give his work musical titles to suggest an analogy with the abstract art of music. He thought that paintings were music to your eyes so he used musical terms to name them. In 1861, Whistler painted Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl.
This painting displayed his mistress along with his business partner Joanna Hiffernan. Created as a simple study, this would become Whistler’s first famous art piece. However, it was criticized by some as showing a new brides’s lost innocence, and was thought by others to be attached to different books during that time. The Royal Academy would also refused to display it in their exhibit. It would be displayed though in 1863 in an event. The event was sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III at the Salen Des Refusés in Paris.
Whistler created another portrait of Hiffernan two years later, entitled The Little White Girl, displaying his newfound interest in Asian motifs. During his career Whistler incorporated many sources into his art including Japanese art, Velázques, and Rembrandt. His paintings were related to many different movements including Impressionism, Symbolism, and Aestheticism. He himself played a major role in introducing modern ideas into British art.
He also affected two generations of artists in the United States and Europe. He taught aspects of Tonalism to Arthur Frank Mathews who then took the teachings back to artist in San Francisco, California. Whistler would then go and stay in Venice in 1880.
Here he would help artists and photographers view the city in a new light through a series of etchings and pastel work. When he returned to London his art was well received and sold very quickly. For the rest of his career he continued to try different kinds of art, and he influenced his students to continue his way of thinking as they went out on their own. His time would end though on July 17, 1903. After his death most of his artwork was donated to Glasgow University.
Years later people would see his face again when the U.S. Post Office commemorated various famous American Authors, Poets, Scientists, Inventors, Educators, Composers, and Artists, issuing out 35 stamp.