James McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903)

 

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 10, 1834 – July 17, 1903) was an American-born, British-based artist active during the American Gilded Age. He was averse to sentimentality and moralallusion in painting, and was a leading proponent of the credo "art for art's sake".

 

His famous signature for his paintings was in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail. The symbol was apt, for it combined both aspects of his personality—his art was characterized by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative. Finding a parallel between painting and music, Whistler entitled many of his paintings "arrangements", "harmonies", and "nocturnes", emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony.

 

His most famous painting is "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1" (1871), commonly known as Whistler's Mother, the revered and oft-parodied portrait of motherhood. Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his artistic theories and his friendships with leading artists and writers.

 

In 1861, after returning to Paris for a time, Whistler painted his first famous work, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. The portrait of his mistress and business manager Joanna Hiffernan was created as a simple study in white; however, others saw it differently.

 

The critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary thought the painting an allegory of a new bride's lost innocence. Others linked it to Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, a popular novel of the time, or various other literary sources. In England, some considered it a painting in the Pre-Raphaelite manner.  In the painting, Hiffernan holds a lily in her left hand and stands upon a bear skin rug (interpreted by some to represent masculinity and lust) with the bear's head staring menacingly at the viewer. The portrait was refused for exhibition at the conservative Royal Academy, but was shown in a private gallery under the titleThe Woman in White. In 1863 it was shown at the Salon des Refusés in Paris, an event sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III for the exhibition of works rejected from the Salon.

 

Whistler's painting was widely noticed, although upstaged by Manet's more shocking painting Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. Countering criticism by traditionalists, Whistler's supporters insisted that the painting was "an apparition with a spiritual content" and that it epitomized his theory that art should be concerned essentially with the arrangement of colors in harmony, not with a literal portrayal of the natural world.

 

Two years later, Whistler painted another portrait of Hiffernan in white, this time displaying his newfound interest in Asian motifs, which he entitled The Little White Girl. His Lady of the Land Lijsen and The Golden Screen, both completed in 1864, again portray his mistress, in even more emphatic Asian dress and surroundings. During this period Whistler became close to Gustave Courbet, the early leader of the French realist school, but when Hiffernan modeled in the nude for Courbet, Whistler became enraged and his relationship with Hiffernan began to fall apart.

 

In January 1864, Whistler's very religious and very proper mother arrived in London, upsetting her son's bohemian existence and temporarily exacerbating family tensions. As he wrote to Henri Fantin-Latour, "General upheaval!! I had to empty my house and purify it from cellar to eaves." He also immediately moved Hiffernan to another location.

 

In 1866, Whistler decided to visit Valparaíso, Chile, a journey that has puzzled scholars, although Whistler stated that he did it for political reasons. Chile was at war with Spain and perhaps Whistler thought it a heroic struggle of a small nation against a larger one, but no evidence supports that theory.  What the journey did produce was Whistler's first three nocturnal paintings—which he termed "moonlights" and later re-titled as "nocturnes"—night scenes of the harbor painted with a blue or light green palette. After he returned to London, he painted several more nocturnes over the next ten years, many of the River Thamesand of Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure park famous for its frequent fireworks displays, which presented a novel challenge to paint. In his maritime nocturnes, Whistler used highly thinned paint as a ground with lightly flicked color to suggest ships, lights, and shore line.  Some of the Thames paintings also show compositional and thematic similarities with the Japanese prints ofHiroshige.[46]

In 1872, Whistler credited his patron Frederick Leyland, an amateur musician devoted to Chopin, for his musically inspired titles.

 

I say I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me—besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish!

 

At that point, Whistler painted another self-portrait and entitled it Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter[48] (c. 1872), and he also began to re-title many of his earlier works using terms associated with music, such as a "nocturne", "symphony", "harmony", "study" or "arrangement", to emphasize the tonal qualities and the composition and to de-emphasize the narrative content.  Whistler's nocturnes were among his most innovative works. Furthermore, his submission of several nocturnes to art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel after the Franco-Prussian War gave Whistler the opportunity to explain his evolving "theory in art" to artists, buyers, and critics in France.  His good friend Fantin-Latour, growing more reactionary in his opinions, especially in his negativity concerning the emerging Impressionist school, found Whistler's new works surprising and confounding. Fantin-Latour admitted, "I don’t understand anything there; it's bizarre how one changes. I don't recognize him anymore." Their relationship was nearly at an end by then, but they continued to share opinions in occasional correspondence.  When Edgar Degas invited Whistler to exhibit with the first show by the Impressionists in 1874, Whistler turned down the invitation, as did Manet, and some scholars attributed this in part to Fantin-Latour's influence on both men.

 

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 fragmented the French art community. Many artists took refuge in England, joining Whistler, including Camille Pissarro and Monet, while Manet and Degas stayed in France. Like Whistler, Monet and Pissarro both focused their efforts on views of the city, and it is likely that Whistler was exposed to the evolution of Impressionism founded by these artists and that they had seen his nocturnes. Whistler was drifting away from Courbet's "damned realism" and their friendship had wilted, as had his liaison with Joanna Hiffernan. 

 

Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (1871), popularly known as Whistler's Mother

 

By 1871, Whistler returned to portraits and soon produced his most famous painting, the nearly monochromatic full-length figure entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, but usually (and incorrectly) referred to as Whistler's Mother. A model failed to appear one day, according to a letter from his mother, so Whistler turned to his mother and suggested that he do her portrait. In his typically slow and experimental way, at first he had her stand, but that proved too tiring so the famous seated pose was adopted. It took dozens of sittings to complete.

Whistler

 

James McNeill Whistler (1885) by William Merritt Chase

 

Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (1871),

popularly known as Whistler's Mother

 

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