James Whistler (1834 – 1903)





James Whistler


Birth name James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Born July 10, 1834, Lowell, Massachusetts, USA

Died July 17, 1903, London, UK

Nationality American

Movement Impressionism



His father, Major George Whistler, was an army engineer. When he was commissioned to plan the St. Petersburg to Moscow railway he took his wife and child with him. After his father's death James entered  West Point Academy, but he was undisciplined character unsuitable for army life, and instead he was appointed a naval map-designer to the state of Washington. He also experimented with his first engravings. In 1855 he left America and worked first in London and then in Paris, where he studied with Gleyre. His fellow students included Degas, Legros, Bracquemond and Fantin-Latour. In 1858 he brought out his first set of engravings. In 1859 his canvas At the piano was turned down by the Salon Hanging Committee, and Bonvin instead organized an exhibition in his studio, with works by Whistler, Legros and Ribot. In 1860 he sent his White Girl to the Salon; it was also refused. As his relations with the London Royal Academy were better than with the Salon, he decided to settle in England, and in 1859 brought out a series of engravings of the Thames. He also became an excellent portrait painter. He was influenced by Velazquez as well as by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, and by Japanese art. The quality of sober understatement in his work probably derives from this Japanese influence, but Whistler was also a forerunner of Impressionism.  Whistler's was a very individual talent, who tended to sacrifice
line and form in favour of luminous masses and volume. He was also a distinguished portrait painter, as can be seen in the fine portrait of his mother first shown in 1872 at the Royal Academy, and those of Carlyle, Miss Alexander, Theodore Duret and the comte de Montesquiou Fezensac. He decorated Mr Leyland's dining room with his famous Princess of the land of porcelain. In 1877 he exhibited his Nocturnes, with their almost musical quality, but the critics were unfavourable. He visited Venice in 1884 and 1886 settled in Paris again where his work was now much appreciated. He was connected with various art movements of the time, ad might rightly be considered as one of the forerunners of Impressionism.

Based on Phaidon encyclopedia of Impressionism, Maurice Serullaz, Phaidon, 1978


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