James M Whistler
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1834, James Abbott McNeill Whistler became one of the most influential late 19th-century American painters and etchers. He lived primarily in England. Whistler worked in a wide variety of styles that included Impressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau.
He was especially influential in the Tonalist movement and was a catalyst for those who wanted to break away from prescribed academic methods, credited with being the first American modernist to influence European art. His style was independent of realism and of those such as John Ruskin who thought art should have a moral purpose. To many his paintings were a mystery because they seemed dreamy, abstract, and somewhat ghost-like.
For some of his works, he chose musical titles to remove them from narrative context. The formal beauty of Oriental art obsessed him, especially Japanese prints, as well as Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, of which he amassed a choice collection. Through the study of Japanese concision, he brought an esthetic of hints and nuances into late-nineteenth-century painting. His abhorrence of narrative, his refusal to moralize through art, his preference for the exquisitely designed moment over the slice of life, these were new, and they epitomized his ideal of Art for Art’s Sake.
Whistler sued the art critic, John Ruskin in 1877. Ruskin had described Whistler’s painting, “Nocturne in Black and Gold”, “as flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Whistler won, but was only awarded a farthing, and his own costs of the court action ruined him. Whistler, a great dandy, with a sharp tongue and mordant wit, recounted his war against the critics in his book, “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”, 1890. In 1859, Whistler began his superb series of etchings of the Thames, which place him among the finest etchers of the century. He also created 179 lithographs, along with pastels, and watercolors, and favorite subjects were subtly delineated cityscapes or ships at docks. He traveled to Venice in 1879 and 1880, to help recoup his finances from the suit with Ruskin by creating a series of etchings. This series is full of the mood and atmosphere of Venice and was followed by one of Amsterdam. Whistler was raised both in New England and in Russia where his father, an engineer, was commissioned by the Czar to build the Moscow-St. Petersburg railroad. In 1847, Whistler went to London for his sister’s wedding to Seymour Haden, a key figure in 19th century etching, and association with this man stimulated Whistler’s interest in that medium. After the father’s death in 1849, the family returned to the United States, and he entered the Military Academy at West Point where he did illustrations for student publications and also worked as surveyor and cartographer in U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Surveys. It was while he was working as a cartographer that he learned the techniques for etching. In 1855, determined to have a fine art career, he sailed for Europe and never returned to the United States. The artist died in 1903.