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 James McNeill Whistler

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James McNeill Whistler

Artist. He is best known for his full-length portrait of his mother, titled "Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1," but usually known as "Whistler's Mother." Irked by the low status accorded painters in the United States of his day, Whistler pursued his artistic career in Europe. He was born James Abbott Whistler on July 10, 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts. He spent five years of his childhood (1843-1848) in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father, George Washington Whistler, a military railroad engineer, was employed in the building of the St. Petersburg-Moscow railroad. His mother, Anna Matilda McNeill, was devoutly religious. In his early manhood he exchanged his middle name "Abbott" for her maiden name "McNeill." In 1849, Major Whistler died and his widow brought her family home, setting at Pomfret, Connecticut, where James attended local schools until he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1851. Then as now, getting into West Point was not easy. No doubt his father having trained at West Point secured Whistler's entry. He never graduated, but later recalled his West Point years with affection. Among all subjects Whistler succeeded only in drawing, and had particular difficulties with chemistry, which eventually caused him to flunk out of the academy. "Had silicon been a gas," he would say later, "I would have been a major general." West Point was followed by a brief stint in the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey offices in Washington. In 1855, Whistler arrived in Paris, the artistic capital of Europe, with the intention of becoming a painter. After a short period at the École Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin, he enrolled as a student at the studio of Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. At Gleyre's, Whistler became part of the "Paris Gang," a group of young English artists that included Edward Poynter, later president of the Royal Academy, Thomas Armstrong, Thomas Lamont and George du Maurier. In 1858, Whistler set out on a tour of Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland, during which he made a set of etchings "Twelve Etchings from Nature," better known as the "French Set." Praise of this work encouraged Whistler to continue etching. Between 1858 and 1863 he produced 80 plates. In 1859, Whistler started his first major painting, "At the Piano." This masterpiece marked the transition from his student years to artistic independence. The same year Whistler moved to London, which remained his base of operations until 1892. In 1861, he started his second masterpiece, "Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl." The model was his mistress, Jo. In 1877, Whistler began to paint a series of "Nocturnes" based on the Thames views at night. After seeing "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket" and other night scenes at the opening exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, the critics were outraged. John Ruskin stated in print: "I have seen and heard much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for libel and won the case. Whistler was awarded a farthing damages, but his own legal costs bankrupted him. After the bankruptcy was settled, Whistler left for Venice for the next 14 months. During that stay in Venice, he produced four oils, many etchings and almost 100 pastels. Aside from portraits, Whistler was much occupied in the 1880s with small seascapes in watercolor and in oil. After two successful one-man exhibitions at Dowdeswells in 1884 and 1886, Whistler's reputation steadily began to mount. In 1884, he was invited to become a member of the Society of British Artists and two years later was elected its president. In 1886, Whistler painted "Harmony in Red: Lamplight Portrait of Mrs. Beatrix Godwin." Her husband died in 1886 and two years later she became Whistler's wife. The daughter of the sculptor John Bernie Philip, she was also an artist in her own right and Whistler frequently turned to her for advice while painting his portraits. With Beatrix, Whistler moved to Paris in 1892, where she died four years later. In the lithograph "The Siesta" Beatrix is shown already mortally ill. Meanwhile Whistler's reputation had soared. In 1891, "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1" was acquired by the French State and that same year Glasgow Corporation paid a thousand guineas for the "Portrait of Thomas Carlyle." Having exhibited at several important international exhibitions, Whistler was awarded honors by Munich, Amsterdam and Paris. Whistler died on July 17, 1903 in London.

Bio by: Edward Parsons


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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Added: 1 Jan 2001
  • Find A Grave Memorial 1404
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for James McNeill Whistler (10 Jul 1834–17 Jul 1903), Find A Grave Memorial no. 1404, citing Old Chiswick Cemetery, Chiswick, London Borough of Hounslow, Greater London, England ; Maintained by Find A Grave .