Whistler, James McNeill

Date: 1834-1903

One of the most prominent artists of the American Gilded Age (although he was based primarily in the UK), James McNeill Whistler was leader in the belief of ‘art for art’s sake.’

Born in Massachusetts, his family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia for his father’s work when he was young. He studied at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, from age 11 until the death of his father forced the family back to the U.S. He then attended the United States Military Academy at West Point for three years, where he learnt map making and drawing from artist Robert W. Weir. After leaving West Point, he first worked as a draftsman mapping the U.S. coast, but was moved to the etching division after it was found he was drawing sea serpents and mermaids on maps. It was here that he was introduced to techniques that would influence his later art career.

After leaving the Coast Survey, he lived with Tom Winans in Baltimore. Winans furnished a studio for him and was one of the first to purchase Whistler’s paintings. In 1855 he moved to Paris, where he studied traditional art methods at the Ecole Imperiale; as well as travelling to meet fellow artists, including Henri Fantin-Latour, Edouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, and Charles Baudelaire. He spent 1860 in London, where he was establishing his technique of tonal harmony based on a limited, pre-determined palette. In 1866, he travelled to Chile, where he created the first of his nocturnal paintings; night scenes painted with blue or light green palettes. He credits his patron Frederick Leyland, an amateur musician, with the musically-inspired titles he gave his paintings.

His most famous work, ‘Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’, usually referred to as ‘Whistler’s Mother,’ was initially received poorly and refused a place in the Royal Academy. During a stay in Venice, he influenced the American art community there, including Frank Duveneck and Robert Blum; they would share his techniques and methods across America. Whistler published his first book, ‘Ten O’clock Lecture’ in 1885, which further spread his belief in ‘art for art’s sake.’

During the last years of his life, his art shifted to minimalist seascapes. In 1898, he founded an art school but closed it three years later due to poor health. He died in London at the age of 69.

The University Art Collection holds one drawing by James McNeill Whistler, entitled ‘The Fellow Traveller (Study of Ronald Murray Phillip)’.