James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 10, 1834 — July 17, 1903) was an American-born, British-based artist. Averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting, he 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 titled many of his paintings 'arrangements', 'harmonies', and 'nocturnes', emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. His most famous painting is Whistler's Mother (1871), 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.
James Abbott Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was the first child born to Anna Matilda McNeill and George Washington Whistler, a prominent engineer. She was his father's second wife. At the Ruskin trial (see below), Whistler claimed the more exotic St. Petersburg, Russia as his birthplace: 'I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell', he declared. In later years, he would play up his mother's connection to the American South and its roots, and present himself as an impoverished Southern aristocrat (although to what extent he truly sympathized with the Southern cause during the American Civil War remains unclear). After her death he would adopt her maiden name, using it as an additional middle name. Young Whistler was a moody child prone to fits of temper and insolence, who—after bouts of ill-health—often drifted into periods of laziness. His parents discovered in his early youth that drawing often settled him down and helped focus his attention. Russia and EnglandWhistler circa 1847–49
Beginning in 1842, his father was employed to work on a railroad in Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg to join his father a year later, the young Whistler took private art lessons, then enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts at age eleven. The young artist followed the traditional curriculum of drawing from plaster casts and occasional live models, reveled in the atmosphere of art talk with older peers, and pleased his parents with a first-class mark in anatomy. In 1844, he met the noted artist Sir William Allan, who came to Russia with a commission to paint a history of the life of Peter the Great. Whistler's mother noted in her diary, 'the great artist remarked to me 'Your little boy has uncommon genius, but do not urge him beyond his inclination.'
In 1847-8, his family spent some time in London with relatives, while his father stayed in Russia. Whistler's brother-in-law Francis Haden, a physician who was also an artist, spurred his interest in art and photography. Haden took Whistler to visit collectors and to lectures, and gave him a watercolor set with instruction. Whistler already was imagining an art career. He began to collect books on art and he studied other artists' techniques. When his portrait was painted by Sir William Boxall in 1848, the young Whistler exclaimed that the portrait was 'very much like me and a very fine picture. Mr. Boxall is a beautiful colourist…It is a beautiful creamy surface, and looks so rich.' In his blossoming enthusiasm for art, at fifteen, he informed his father by letter of his future direction, 'I hope, dear father, you will not object to my choice.' His father, however, died from cholera at the age of forty-nine, and the Whistler family moved back to his mother's hometown of Pomfret, Connecticut. His art plans remained vague and his future uncertain. The family lived frugally and managed to get by on a limited income. His cousin reported that Whistler at that time was 'slight, with a pensive, delicate face, shaded by soft brown curls…he had a somewhat foreign appearance and manner, which, aided by natural abilities, made him very charming, even at that age.' West Point
Whistler was sent to Christ Church Hall School with his mother's hopes that he would become a minister. Whistler was seldom without his sketchbook and was popular with his classmates for his caricatures. However, after it became clear that a career in religion did not suit him, he applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father had taught drawing, and other relatives had attended. On the strength of his family name, and despite his extreme nearsightedness and poor health history, he was admitted to the highly selective institution. However, during his three years there, his grades were barely satisfactory, and he was a sorry sight at drill and dress. Known as 'Curly' for his hair length which exceeded regulations, Whistler bucked authority, spouted sarcastic comments, and racked up demerits. His major accomplishment was learning drawing and map making from American artist Robert W. Weir.
His departure from West Point seems to have been precipitated by a failure in a chemistry exam where, when asked to describe silicon, he began by saying 'Silicon is a gas'. As he himself put it later: 'If silicon were a gas, I would have been a general one day.' However, a separate anecdote suggests misconduct in drawing class as the reason for Whistler's departure. First job
After West Point, Whistler worked as draftsman mapping the entire U.S. coast for military and maritime purposes. He found the work boring and he was frequently late or absent. He spent much of his free time playing billiards and idling about, was always broke, and although a charmer, had little acquaintance with women. After it was discovered that he was drawing sea serpents, mermaids, and whales on the margins of the maps, he was transferred to the etching division of the U. S. Coast Survey. He lasted there only two months, but he learned the etching technique which later proved valuable to his career.Portrait of Whistler with Hat (1858), Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
At this point, Whistler firmly decided that art would be his future. For a few months he lived in Baltimore with a wealthy friend, Tom Winans, who even furnished Whistler with a studio and some spending cash. The young artist made some valuable contacts in the art community and also sold some early paintings to Winans. Whistler turned down his mother's suggestions for other more practical careers and informed her that with money from Winans, he was setting out to further his art training in Paris. Whistler never returned to the United States. Art study in France
Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855, rented a studio in the Latin Quarter, and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. Soon, he had a French girlfriend, a dressmaker named Héloise. He studied traditional art methods for a short time at the Ecole Impériale and at the atelier of Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. The latter was a great advocate of the work of Ingres, and impressed Whistler with two principles that he used for the rest of his career: line is more important than color and that black is the fundamental color of tonal harmony. Twenty years later, the Impressionists would largely overthrow this philosophy, banning black and brown as 'forbidden colors' and emphasizing color over form. Whistler preferred self-study (including copying at the Louvre) and enjoying the café life. While letters from home reported his mother's efforts at economy, Whistler spent freely, sold little or nothing in his first year in Paris, and was in steady debt. To relieve the situation, he took to painting and selling copies he made at the Louvre and finally moved to cheaper quarters. As luck would have it, the arrival in Paris of George Lucas, another rich friend, helped stabilize Whistler's finances for a while. In spite of a financial respite, the winter of 185was a difficult one for Whistler. His poor health, made worse by excessive smoking and drinking, laid him low.
Conditions improved during the summer of 1858. Whistler recovered and traveled with fellow artist Ernest Delannoy through France and the Rhineland. He later produced a group of etchings known as 'The French Set', with the help of French master printer Auguste Delâtre. During that year, he painted his first self-portrait, Portrait of Whistler with Hat, a dark and thickly rendered work reminiscent of Rembrandt. But the event of greatest consequence that year was his friendship with Henri Fantin-Latour, whom he met at the Louvre. Through him, Whistler was introduced to the circle of Gustave Courbet, which included Carolus-Duran (later the teacher of John Singer Sargent), Alphonse Legros, and Édouard Manet.
Also in this group was Charles Baudelaire, whose ideas and theories of 'modern' art influenced Whistler. Baudelaire challenged artists to scrutinize the brutality of life and nature and to portray it faithfully, avoiding the old themes of mythology and allegory. Théophile Gautier, one of the first to explore translational qualities among art and music, may have inspired Whistler to view art in musical terms. London
Reflecting the banner of realism of his adopted circle, Whistler painted his first exhibited work, La Mere Gerard in 1858. He followed it by painting At the Piano in 185in London, which he adopted as his home, while also regularly visiting friends in France. At the Piano is a portrait composed of his niece and her mother in their London music room, an effort which clearly displayed his talent and promise. A critic wrote, 'despite a recklessly bold manner and sketchiness of the wildest and roughest kind, it has a genuine feeling for colour and a splendid power of composition and design, which evince a just appreciation of nature very rare amongst artists.' The work is unsentimental and effectively contrasts the mother in black and the daughter in white, with other colors kept restrained in the manner advised by his teacher Gleyre. It was displayed at the Royal Academy the following year, and in many exhibits to come.
In a second painting executed in the same room, Whistler demonstrated his natural inclination toward innovation and novelty by fashioning a genre scene with unusual composition and foreshortening. It later was re-titled Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room. This painting also demonstrated Whistler's ongoing work pattern, especially with portraits: a quick start, major adjustments, a period of neglect, then a final flurry to the finish.
After a year in London, as counterpoint to his 185French set, in 1860, he produced another set of etchings called Thames Set, as well as some early impressionistic work, including The Thames in Ice. At this stage, he was beginning to establish his technique of tonal harmony based on a limited, pre-determined palette. Early careerSymphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862), The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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 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 in 186it was accepted 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 new found 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 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. Mature career NocturnesNocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (1872), Tate Britain, London, England
In 1866, Whistler decided to visit Valparaiso, 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 Thames and 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 of Hiroshige.
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 (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 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. Portraits
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 fragmented the French art community. Many artists took refuge in England, joining Whistler, including 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 Jo. Whistler's MotherArrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother (1871), popularly known as Whistler's Mother, Musée d'Orsay, ParisMain article: 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: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, but usually referred to as Whistler's Mother. According to a letter from his mother, one day after a model failed to appear, Whistler turned to his mother and suggested 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 profile pose was adopted. It took dozens of sittings to complete.
The austere portrait in his normally constrained palette is another Whistler exercise in tonal harmony and composition. The deceptively simple design is in fact a balancing act of differing shapes, particularly rectangles of the curtain, picture on the wall, wall, and floor which stabilize the curve of her face, dress, and chair. Again, although his mother is the subject, Whistler commented that the narrative was of little importance. In reality, however, it was a homage to his pious mother. After the initial shock of her moving in with her son, she aided him considerably by stabilizing his behavior somewhat, tending to his domestic needs, and providing an aura of conservative respectability that helped win over patrons.
Mostly due to its anti-Victorian simplicity, during a time in England when sentimentality and flamboyant decoration were in vogue, the public reacted negatively. Critics thought the painting a failed 'experiment' rather than art. The Royal Academy rejected it, then grudgingly accepted it after lobbying by Sir William Boxall—but then hung the painting in an unfavorable location at its exhibition.
From the start, Whistler's Mother sparked varying reactions, including parody, ridicule, and reverence, which have continued to today. While some saw it as 'the dignified feeling of old ladyhood', 'a grave sentiment of mourning', or a 'perfect symbol of motherhood', others employed it as a fitting vehicle for mockery. It has been satirized in endless variation in greeting cards and magazines, and by cartoon characters such as Donald Duck and Bullwinkle the Moose. Whistler did his part in promoting the picture and popularizing the image. He frequently exhibited it and authorized the early reproductions that made their way into thousands of homes.
The painting narrowly escaped being burnt in a fire aboard a train during shipping. Later the painting was purchased by the French government, the first Whistler work in a public collection, and is now housed in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
During the Depression, the picture was billed as a 'million dollar' painting and was a big hit at the Chicago World's Fair. It was accepted as a universal icon of motherhood by the worldwide public, which was not particularly aware or concerned with Whistler's aesthetic theories. In public recognition of its status and popularity, the United States issued a postage stamp in 193featuring an adaptation of the painting.
In summing up the painting's impact author Martha Tedeschi has stated:
' Whistler's Mother, Wood's American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch's The Scream have all achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. These few works have successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture.'
Other important portraits by Whistler include those of Thomas Carlyle (historian,1873), Maud Franklin (his mistress, 1876), Cicely Alexander (daughter of a London banker, 1873), Lady Meux (socialite, 1882), and Théodore Duret (critic, 1884). In the 1870s, Whistler painted full length portraits of F.R. Leyland and his wife Frances. Leyland subsequently commissioned the artist to decorate his dining room (see Peacock Room below).
Whistler had been disappointed over the irregular acceptance of his works for the Royal Academy exhibitions and the poor hanging and placement of his paintings. In response, Whistler staged his first solo show in 1874. The show was notable and noticed, however, for Whistler's design and decoration of the hall, which harmonized well with the paintings, in keeping with his art theories. A reviewer wrote, 'The visitor is struck, on entering the gallery, with a curious sense of harmony and fitness pervading it, and is more interested, perhaps, in the general effect than in any one work.'
Whistler was not so successful a portrait painter as the other famous expatriate American John Singer Sargent. Whistler's spare technique and his disinclination to flatter his sitters, as well as his notoriety may account for this. He also worked very slowly and demanded extraordinarily long sittings. William Merritt Chase complained of his sitting for a portrait by Whistler, 'He proved to be a veritable tyrant, painting every day into the twilight, while my limbs ached with weariness and my head swam dizzily. 'Don't move! Don't move! ' he would scream whenever I started to rest.' By the time he gained widespread acceptance in the 1890s, Whistler was past his prime as a portrait painter. Technique
Whistler's approach to portraiture in his late maturity was described by one of his sitters, Arthur J. Eddy, who posed for the artist in 1894:
He worked with great rapidity and long hours, but he used his colours thin and covered the canvas with innumerable coats of paint. The colours increased in depth and intensity as the work progressed. At first the entire figure was painted in greyish-brown tones, with very little flesh colour, the whole blending perfectly with the greyish-brown of the prepared canvas; then the entire background would be intensified a little; then the figure made a little stronger; then the background, and so on from day to day and week to week, and often from month to month.... And so the portrait would really grow, really develop as an entirety, very much as a negative under the action of the chemicals comes out gradually—light, shadows, and all from the very first faint indications to their full values. It was as if the portrait were hidden within the canvas and the master by passing his wands day after day over the surface evoked the image.
PrintmakingZaandam, the Netherlands, c. 188- etching by James McNeill Whistler
A supremely gifted engraver, Whistler produced numerous etchings, lithographs, and dry-points. His lithographs, some drawn on stone, others drawn directly on 'lithographie' paper, are perhaps half as numerous as his etchings. Some of the lithographs are of figures slightly draped; two or three of the very finest are of Thames subjects—including a 'nocturne' at Limehouse; while others depict the Faubourg Saint-Germain in Paris, and Georgian churches in Soho and Bloomsbury in London. The etchings include portraits of family, mistresses, and intimate street scenes in London and Venice. Butterfly signature
Whistler's famous butterfly signature first developed in the 1860s out of his interest in Asian art. He studied the potter's marks on the china he had begun to collect and decided to design a monogram of his initials. Over time this evolved into the shape of an abstract butterfly. By around 1880, he added a stinger to the butterfly image to create a mark representing both his gentle, sensitive nature and his provocative, feisty spirit. He took great care in the appropriate placement of the image on both his paintings and his custom-made frames. His focus on the importance of balance and harmony extended beyond the frame to the placement of his paintings to their settings, and further to the design of an entire architectural element, as in the Peacock Room. The Peacock RoomDetail of the Peacock Room, Freer Gallery of Art,Washington, D.C.
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room is Whistler's masterpiece of interior decorative mural art. He painted the paneled room in a rich and unified palette of brilliant blue-greens with over-glazing and metallic gold leaf. Painted in 1876–77, it now is considered a high example of the Anglo-Japanese style. Unhappy with the first decorative result by another artist, Leyland left the room in Whistler's care to make minor changes, 'to harmonize' the room whose primary purpose was to display Leyland's china collection. Whistler let his imagination run wild, however, 'Well, you know, I just painted on. I went on—without design or sketch—putting in every touch with such freedom…And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy of it.'
Upon returning, Leyland was shocked by the 'improvements.' Artist and patron quarreled so violently over the room and the proper compensation for the work that the important relationship for Whistler was terminated. At one point, Whistler gained access to Leyland's home and painted two fighting peacocks meant to represent the artist and his patron; one holds a paint brush and the other holds a bag of money.
Whistler is reported to have said to Leyland, 'Ah, I have made you famous. My work will live when you are forgotten. Still, per chance, in the dim ages to come you will be remembered as the proprietor of the Peacock Room.' Adding to the emotional drama was Whistler's fondness for Leyland's wife, Frances, who separated from her husband in 1879.
Having acquired the centerpiece of the room, Whistler's painting of The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, American industrialist and aesthete Charles Lang Freer purchased the entire room in 190from Leyland's heirs, including Leyland's daughter and her husband, the British artist Val Prinsep. Freer then had the contents of the Peacock Room installed in his Detroit mansion. After Freer's death in 1919, the Peacock Room was permanently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The gallery opened to the public in 1923. Ruskin trial
In 187Whistler sued the critic John Ruskin for libel after the critic condemned his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Whistler exhibited the work in the Grosvenor Gallery, an alternative to the Royal Academy exhibition, alongside Edward Burne-Jones and other artists. Ruskin, who had been a champion of the Pre-Raphaelites and J. M. W. Turner, reviewed Whistler's work in his publication Fors Clavigera on July 2, 1877. Ruskin praised Burne-Jones, while he attacked Whistler:
For Mr. Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay founder of the Grosvenor Gallery ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. 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, seeing the attack in the newspaper, replied to his friend George Boughton, 'It is the most debased style of criticism I have had thrown at me yet.' He then went to his solicitor and drew up a writ for libel which was served to Ruskin. Whistler hoped to recover £1,000 plus the costs of the action. The case came to trial the following year after delays caused by Ruskin's bouts of mental illness, while Whistler's financial condition continued to deteriorate. It was heard at the Queen's Bench of the High Court on November 2and 2of 1878. The lawyer for John Ruskin, Attorney General Sir John Holker, cross examined Whistler:
Holker: 'What is the subject of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket?' Whistler: 'It is a night piece and represents the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens.' Holker: 'Not a view of Cremorne?' Whistler: 'If it were A View of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement. That is why I call it a nocturne....' Holker: 'Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?' Whistler: 'Oh, I 'knock one off' possibly in a couple of days – one day to do the work and another to finish it...' the painting measures 23/x 13/inches Holker: 'The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?' Whistler: 'No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.'
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874),Detroit Institute of Arts
Whistler had counted on many artists to take his side as witnesses, but they refused fearing damage to their reputations. The other witnesses for him were unconvincing and the jury's own reaction to the work was derisive. With Ruskin's witnesses more impressive, including Edward Burne-Jones, and with Ruskin absent for medical reasons, Whistler's counter-attack was ineffective. Nonetheless, the jury reached a verdict in favor of Whistler, but awarded a mere farthing in nominal damages, and the court costs were split. The cost of the case, together with huge debts from building his residence ('The White House' in Tite Street, Chelsea, designed with E. W. Godwin, 1877–8), bankrupted him by May 1879, resulting in an auction of his work, collections, and house. Stansky notes the irony that the Fine Art Society of London, which had organized a collection to pay for Ruskin's legal costs, supported him in etching 'the stones of Venice' (and in exhibiting the series in 1883) which helped recoup Whistler's costs.
Whistler published his account of the trial in the pamphlet Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics, included in his later The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890), in December 1878, soon after the trial. Whistler's grand hope that the publicity of the trial would rescue his career was dashed as patrons avoided him for years to come. Among his creditors was Leyland, who oversaw the sale of Whistler's possessions. Whistler made various caricatures of his former patron, including a biting satirical painting called The Gold Scab, just after Whistler declared bankruptcy. Whistler always blamed Leyland for his financial downfall. Later yearsMother of pearl and silver: The Andalusian (1888–1900), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
After the trial, Whistler received a commission to do twelve etchings in Venice. He eagerly accepted the assignment, and arrived in the city with girlfriend Maud, taking rooms in a dilapidated palazzo they shared with other artists, including John Singer Sargent. Although homesick for London, he adapted to Venice and set about discovering its character. He did his best to distract himself from the gloom of his financial affairs and the pending sale of all his goods at Sotheby's. He was a regular guest at parties at the American consulate, and with his usual wit, enchanted the guests with verbal flourishes such as 'the artist's only positive virtue is idleness—and there are so few who are gifted at it.'
His new friends reported, on the contrary, that Whistler rose early and put in a full day of effort. He wrote to a friend, 'I have learned to know Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived, and which, if I bring back with me as I propose, will far more than compensate for all annoyances delays & vexations of spirit.' The three month assignment stretched to fourteen months. During this exceptionally productive period, Whistler finished over fifty etchings, several nocturnes, some watercolors, and over 100 pastels—illustrating both the moods of Venice and its fine architectural details. Furthermore, Whistler influenced the American art community in Venice, especially Frank Duveneck and Robert Blum who emulated Whistler's vision of city and later spread his methods and influence back to America.
Back in London, the pastels sold particularly well and he quipped, 'They are not as good as I supposed. They are selling!' He was actively engaged in exhibiting his other work but with limited success. Though still struggling financially, however, he was heartened by the attention and admiration he received from the young generation of English and American painters who made him their idol and eagerly adopted the title of 'pupil of Whistler'. Many of them returned to America and spread tales of Whistler's provocative egotism, sharp wit, and aesthetic pronouncements—establishing the legend of Whistler, much to his great satisfaction.
Whistler published his first book, Ten O'clock Lecture in 1885, a major expression of his belief in 'art for art's sake'. At the time, the opposing Victorian notion reigned, namely, that art, and indeed much human activity, had a moral or social function. To Whistler, however, art was its own end and the artist's responsibility was not to society, but to himself, to interpret through art, and to neither reproduce nor moralize what he saw. Furthermore, he stated, 'Nature is very rarely right', and must be improved upon by the artist, with his own vision.
Though differing with Whistler on several points, including his insistence that poetry was a higher form of art than painting, Oscar Wilde was generous in his praise and hailed the lecture a masterpiece:
'not merely for its clever satire and amusing jests…but for the pure and perfect beauty of many of its passages . . . for that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler himself entirely concurs.'
Whistler, however, thought himself mocked by Oscar Wilde, and from then on, public sparring ensued leading to a total breakdown of their friendship. Later, Wilde struck at Whistler again, basing the murdered artist in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray after Whistler.
In January 1881, Anna Whistler died. In his mother's honor, thereafter, he publicly adopted her maiden name McNeill as a middle name.
Whistler joined the Society of British Artists in 1884, and on June 1, 1886, he was elected president. The following year, during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, Whistler presented to the Queen, on the Society's behalf, an elaborate album including a lengthy written address and illustrations that he made. Queen Victoria so admired 'the beautiful and artistic illumination' that she decreed henceforth, 'that the Society should be called Royal.' This achievement was widely appreciated by the members, but soon it was overshadowed by the dispute that inevitably arose with the Royal Academy of Arts. Whistler proposed that members of the Royal Society should withdraw from the Royal Academy. This ignited a feud within the membership ranks that overshadowed all other society business. In May 1888, nine members wrote to Whistler to demand his resignation. At the annual meeting on June 4, he was defeated for reelection by a vote of 18–19, with nine abstentions. Whistler and twenty-five supporters resigned, while the anti-Whistler majority (in his view) was successful in purging him for his 'eccentricities' and 'non-English' background.
With his relationship with Maud unraveling, Whistler suddenly proposed to and married Beatrice ('Trixie') Godwin (née Beatrix Birnie Philip), a former pupil and the former wife of his architect Edward William Godwin, who had died two years earlier. Her respectability and connections helped bring him badly needed commissions in the early 1890s. His book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, was published in 1890 to mixed success, but it afforded helpful publicity.Arrangement in Pink, Red and Purple, 1883–1884, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio.
In 1890, he met Charles Lang Freer, who became a valuable patron in America, and ultimately, his most important collector. Around this time, in addition to portraiture, Whistler experimented with early color photography and with lithography, creating a series featuring London architecture and the human figure, mostly female nudes. In 1891, with help from his close friend Stéphane Mallarmé, Whistler's Mother was purchased by the French government for 4,000 francs. This was much less than what an American collector might have paid, but that would not have been so prestigious by Whistler's reckoning.
After an indifferent reception to his solo show in London, featuring mostly his nocturnes, Whistler abruptly decided he had had enough of London. He and Trixie moved to Paris in 1892. He felt welcomed by Monet, Auguste Rodin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and by Stéphane Mallarmé, and he set himself up a large studio. He was at the top of his career when it was discovered that Trixie had cancer. They returned to London in February 1896, taking rooms at the Savoy Hotel while they sought medical treatment. He made drawings on lithographic transfer paper of the view of the River Thames, from the hotel window or balcony, as he sat with her. She died a few months later.
In the final seven years of his life, Whistler did some minimalist seascapes in watercolor and a final self-portrait in oil. He corresponded with his many friends and colleagues. Whistler founded an art school in 1898, but his poor health and infrequent appearances led to its closure in 1901. He died in London on July 17, 1903.
Whistler was the subject of a contemporaneous biography by his friend, the printmaker Joseph Pennell who collaborated with his wife Elizabeth Robins Pennell to write The Life of James McNeill Whistler, published in 1908. The Pennells' vast collection of Whistler material was bequeathed to the Library of Congress. The artist's entire estate was left to his sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip. She spent her life defending his reputation and managing his art and effects, much of which eventually was donated to Glasgow University. Personal relationshipsEtching of Whistler's model, Joanna Hiffernan (c. 1860)