Artist. He is best known, as an American-born painter, 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. Born the third son of a West Point graduate and civil engineer for the railroad in the United States Army, James Abbott Whistler spent five years of his childhood, from age nine years old, in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father, Major George Washington Whistler was employed in the building of the St. Petersburg-Moscow railroad. Considered devoutly religious, his mother, Anna Matilda McNeill, was his father's second wife and he was her first-born. In his early manhood he exchanged his middle name "Abbott" for his mother's maiden name "McNeill." While in Europe, he had the opportunity to take formal art classes. In 1849, his father died of cholera and his widowed mother brought her family home, settling at Pomfret, Connecticut, where he attended local schools until he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1851. Receiving an appointment to West Point was not easy, but no doubt his father having graduated from West Point secured his admission. Of all his subjects, he succeeded only in drawing, having particular difficulties with chemistry, which eventually caused him to fail and withdraw from the academy. "Had silicon been a gas," he would say later, "I would have been a major general." West Point was followed by a position at Winans Locomotive Works in Baltimore and a brief stint in the drawing department at the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey offices in Washington, D.C. With the intention of becoming a painter, he arrived in 1855 to Paris, the artistic capital of Europe. 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, he undertook a tour of Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland, during which he produced the "Twelve Etchings from Nature," better known as the "French Set." Praises of this work encouraged him to continue etching. Between 1858 and 1863, he produced 80 plates. In 1859, he started his painting, "At the Piano," which marked the transition from his student years to artistic independence. When "At the Piano was rejected for exhibition at the Salon in Paris, he moved to London, where his masterpiece was exhibited at the Royal Academy. From that point, his base of operations was London until 1892. In 1861, he started his second masterpiece, "Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl," using as the model his Irish mistress, Jo Hifferman. He traveled to South America in 1866 to paint the seascapes of Chile. In 1877 he 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. A leading art critic of the era, 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." Although Whistler sued Ruskin for libel and won the case, he was awarded a farthing-worth of damages, yet his own legal costs with negative press coverage bankrupted him by 1879. 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, he 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, being elected president two years later. In 1886, he painted "Harmony in Red: Lamplight Portrait of Mrs. Beatrix Godwin." Godwin's husband died in 1886 and two years later he took Godwin as his wife. The daughter of the sculptor John Bernie Philip, his wife was also an artist in her own right and Whistler frequently turned to her for advice while painting his portraits. With his wife, Whistler moved to Paris in 1892, where she died four years later of cancer. In the lithograph "The Siesta" his wife is shown already mortally ill. He had become a close colleague of the American art collector Charles Freer. Originally for shipping magnate, Frederick Richards Leyland, Whister painted in 1876 to 1877 panels of blues and greens with gold leaf, which were later purchased by Freer and transported to the United States for his dining room. Later, these panels became part of the collection for the Freer Art Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. These panels of wood, leather and canvas were called "Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room" and example of Anglo-Asian art. Besides his panels, an etching on paper portrait of Whister is on exhibit at the Freer Art Gallery. Meanwhile his reputation had soared internationally. In 1891, his oil-on-canvas "Whistler's Mother" was purchased by the French State, making this piece the first painting by an American artist ever accepted by the Louvre Museum in Paris, and that same year Glasgow Corporation paid a thousand guineas for the "Portrait of Thomas Carlyle." Having exhibited at several important international exhibitions, he was awarded honors by Munich, Amsterdam and Paris. After 1869, his paintings were signed with a butterfly monogram composed of his initials. In his later years, he painted only in watercolors and founded an art school in 1898, but a decline in his health led to the school's closure in 1901. He died suddenly in 1903. For Mother's Day, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in 1934 featuring an adaptation of his painting "Whistler's Mother."
Bio by: Edward Parsons
Beatrix Godwin Whistler