James Whistler
Biography of American Impressionist-Style Painter.

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Nocturne: Old Battersea Bridge (1874)
Tate Collection, London.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)


Early Life, Artistic Training
Early Impressionist-style Paintings
Returns to Paris
Reputation and Legacy
Greatest Paintings

NOTE: For analysis of works by American painters like Whistler,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Red and Black (1884)
Private Collection.


A major figure in Victorian art, the small, egotistical and quarrelsome, Whistler was associated with the Aesthetic Movement, believing in creating art for art's sake. Strongly influenced by Edouard Manet and Diego Velazquez, he strove to express the harmony and beauty of music through visual means, and is best remembered for his Impressionist-style landscape painting - given musical names such as 'arrangements', 'harmonies' and 'nocturnes', such as Nocturne in Blue And Silver - Chelsea (1871, Tate Collection, London) and Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket (1875, Detroit Institute of Arts). Whistler was also a talented portraitist, his most famous work of portrait art is Portrait of the Artist's Mother (Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1) (1871). In addition, he was one of the great masters of etching - comparable even with Rembrandt - and a talented decorative artist. Born in America, educated in Russia, he spent most of his adult life in Britain.

Nocturne in Black and Gold,
the Falling Rocket (1875)
Detroit Institute of Arts.

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

For biographies of some of
the best American artists from
the 18th and 19th centuries, see:
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picture American Gothic.
Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)
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noted for Christina's World.

Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.

Early Life and Artistic Training

Born in 1834 in Massachusetts, Whistler's father George Washington Whistler was an engineer and his mother Anna Matilda, a strict and devout housewife. In 1843 the family moved to St Petersburg, where George was employed to work on the railways. The young Whistler was prone to moody spells and fits of temper and his mother noticed the only thing that would calm the child was drawing. He showed an early interest in art, so that in 1845, at the age of 11, he enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg. It was here that he met the well known Scottish artist Sir William Allan who was to remark to Whistler's mother that your 'your little boy has uncommon genius'.

In 1847 Whistler's mother moved the family temporarily to London, while her husband remained in Russia. Young Whistler continued to study art, attending exhibitions and lectures on painting and photography. He read art books and it became clear that he had found his chosen career. At the age of 15, he wrote to his father to tell him of his intending career with the hope he would not object. His father however died of cholera shortly after. The family returned to the hometown of his mother in Connecticut. Money was short and times were difficult.

Shortly after, Whistler was sent to West Point Academy, where his father had once taught drawing and other relatives had attended. It was because of this, and despite Whistler's bad eyesight and not particularly robust health, that he was admitted. He remained for three years but failed his final exams. It appears he was more interested in drawing caricature than studying the art of warfare. He did however learn the skill of drafting maps, which resulted in his first job: to draft the entire US coast for military purposes. After it was discovered that he was more fond of drawing mermaids than seacoasts, he was transferred to the printmaking department. He only lasted in this position a few months but it proved valuable training in etching.


Whistler moved to Paris in 1855, rented a studio in the Latin Quarter and took readily to the bohemian lifestyle of an artist. He studied at the Ecole Imperiale and the atelier of Charles Gabriel. Gabriel was a great advocate of Ingres - the doyen of academic art - and was to impress the importance of line over colour and that black was the fundamental colour of tonal harmony. Impressionist painters would turn this theory on its ear less than 20 years later, when they rejected the use of brown and black as unnatural on a palette. Meantime, Whistler spent a lot of time copying Old Master works at the Louvre and then selling them to tourists to earn money. The subtleties of Velazquez's paintings in the Louvre and the flattened forms of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints - part of the Japonism craze - were to become important influences on his developing style.

Early Impressionist-Style Paintings

Whistler's first exhibited painting was La Mere Gerard (1858), which received some praise. He moved to London in 1859 and painted his next work, At the Piano, the same year. It was a painting of his niece and her mother and clearly displayed a promising talent. The painting is unsentimental and uses black and white quite effectively to contrast mother and daughter. It was displayed at the Royal Academy the following year. A year later he produced a set of etchings of the Thames, which displayed traces of early Impressionism, and introduced his technique of tonal harmony, limiting his palette to certain colours. (See also: Impressionism: Early History.)

After returning to Paris for a brief period, Whistler produced one of his first famous works - Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) now at The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. The portrait is of his mistress and manager Joanna Hiffernan. Critics saw the girl in a white dress, holding a fading flower as an elegy for lost innocence. Whistler claims it was simply a study in white. Some even considered it a study in the Pre-Raphaelite manner. The work was rejected by the official Salon but accepted by the Salon des Refuses in 1863. (See also: Best Impressionist Paintings.)

Note: to compare Monet's way of capturing light and use of colour, see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.)


In 1866 Whistler visited Chile, an unusual journey to make at the time, one the artist declared he did for political reasons. Whatever the reason, as a result of his trip, he returned with several paintings which he called moonlights, but later renamed to nocturnes. The works were delicate night scenes of a harbour bathed in blues and light greens.
Over the next decade or so, he continued to paint many more nocturnes, including Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (c.1872–5) and Falling rocket: Nocturne in Black and Gold (1875). These nocturnes - most of them masterpieces of tonality - are Whistler's greatest contribution to modern art.

For another modern painter who saw a connection between music and painting, see the abstract artist Frank Kupka (1871-1957), from the Czech Republic who was in Paris at the same time as Whistler.

His changing style confused his contemporaries. On the unveiling of his Falling Rocket nocturne - a painting in which the subject matter dissolves almost entirely into a complex interplay of colour and form - it was criticised heavily by the English critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) who accused the artist of flinging "a pot of paint in the public's face". Whistler sued for libel and resulting court case has become quite famous. Whistler's wit and responses have gone down in history. Asked how long it had taken him to 'knock off' the painting, he replied 'two days'. He was then asked if it was for 2 days he charged 200 guineas. He replied: 'No. I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime'. Whistler won the case, but the legal costs left him bankrupt.


Whistler was not as successful a portraitist as his contemporary American artist, John Singer Sargent. The main reason for this was that he refused to flatter his sitter. His most famous portrait is that of his mother, painted in 1862. According to a letter at the time, a famous sitter failed to appear so he turned to his mother and offered to do her portrait instead. Initially she was standing, but this became too tiring, so she sat instead. The resulting pose, side view, hands neatly on nap is now an iconic image of American art and one of the most striking portraits of the 19th century. The limited use of colour gives the painting a harmony and quiet dignity. Right from the start the painting has evoked mixed reactions from ridicule to reverence. Gradually over time it has been accepted as a universal icon of motherhood and in 1934 the US issued a postage stamp with a reproduction of the work. Whistler's other greatest portrait paintings include Thomas Carlyle, historian (1873), Cicely Alexander, daughter of a London banker (1873), Lady Meux, socialite (1882) and F.R. and Elinor Leyland. The Leylands later commissioned the artist to produce a now-famous mural painting in their house, the Peacock Room. His finished work anticipated a great deal of the 1890s Art Nouveau designs and was much admired by Aubrey Beardsley.

Returns to Paris

In 1892, after a luke-warm reception for a solo-exhibition in London, featuring mostly nocturnes, Whistler moved to Paris with his new wife Trixie Godwin (a former pupil). He set himself up in a large studio and made friends with other well-known modern artists including Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec and sculptors such as Auguste Rodin. In the final seven years of his life, Whistler's style became more and more minimalist. He died in 1903.

Reputation and Legacy

After his death, Whistler's sensitive paintings found a more appreciative audience. He was a pioneer of simplification, clearing out Victorian clutter, expounding the use of simple, plain colours. He left behind over 500 paintings, as well as countless watercolours, etchings, pastel drawings, and lithographs. During his lifetime he influenced a generation of artists in the Realism and Symbolism schools, including the Norwegian landscape artist P.S. Kroyer (1851-1909), and the Danish interiors painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916). He also had a huge impact on the Glasgow School of Painting and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

In some ways, Whistler's discreet and subtle oil painting was the complete antithesis of his voluble, ostentatious personality. Except it was founded on a radical doctrine: that art should exist for its own sake rather than to propagate a moral or social idea. "Art should be independent of all claptrap - should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear." He remains one of the finest painters of the modern era and a major figure in expatriate American art of the second half of the 19th century.

Greatest Paintings

Paintings by James Abbott McNeill Whistler can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world. Among them are the following key works:

- Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) National Gallery, Washington DC.
- Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864) Tate Collection, London.
- Crepuscule in Flesh Colour and Green: Valparaiso (1866), Tate Gallery, London.
- Harmony in Flesh Colour and Red (1869), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1871) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
- Nocturne in Blue And Silver - Chelsea (1871) Tate Collection, London.
- Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (1874) Tate Collection, London.
- Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander (1874) Tate Collection, London.
- Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket: (1875) Detroit Institute of Arts.
- Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1877) Freer Gallery, Washington DC.
- Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room (1877), Freer Gallery, Washington DC.
- Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux (1882) Frick Collection, New York.


• For more biographies of American artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about American Impressionists, see: Homepage.

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