James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 11, 1834 – July 17, 1903) An American in London
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, three-quarter length portrait, standing, facing left
London Stereoscopic Company, 1878, Library of Congress
“He is a harum-scarum genius; keeps none of his work, makes no records, gives no help to any one who wants to help him; generally makes no answers to letters. For I had hoped to have listened to his delightful talk, which, though, gay, witty and alert, is always simple, serious and dignified when referring to the art he loves so well and practices with so sure a mastery.” Illustrated news, April 9, 1892. P. 348
Whistler loved to tell the story of how he was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia but in truth he was born on American soil in Lowell, Massachusetts. He defended his story saying, “I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell.” Though, in 1842, his father did work in St. Petersburg, Russia as an engineer. When he was invited by Emperor Nicholas to superintend the construction of the St.Petersburg and Moscow railroad, Whistler tells how he joined him there. He took private art lessons eventually enrolling in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts at the age of eleven years old.
Whistler came to America after his father’s death in St. Petersburg, in April, 1849. It wasn’t until 1851, at the age of 16 years old that he entered the United States military academy, West Point, receiving his appointment as a delegate at large from President Fillmore. His career at the academy was unsuccessful and at the end of his first year he ranked 42 in a class of 60. During his second year he was absent because of ill health but one subject drawing received the highest possible mark. During his third year, in 1854, he was found recommended for discharge. In less than two years after leaving West Point, Whistler went to England but only for a short time.
In 1856, he settled in Paris and was hard at work in the studio of the famous genre painter, Charles Gabriel Gleyre, where he remained for two years and where he began his life’s work. Among his fellow students were: George Du Maurier, Edward John Poynter, R.A. and author Diadumene. In 1859 and 1860, Whistlers paintings were refused at the Paris salon. So, he then decided to settle in London, residing on the embankment along the Thames. Beginning to draw his subjects from scenes by hand at once while strolling along the Thames. It was later in the year that he made a second attempt to have his pictures hung in the Paris salon. They were rejected, but the Salon des Refuses accepted them, enabling him to appeal against the judgment of the critics who had refused him recognition. Among the accepted pictures was the White girl which caused a sensation and Paris called him the ‘original’ artist of the day.
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl on the left and Symphony in White, No. 2: The White Girl on the right.
In 1877, Whistler exhibited a collection of his works at the Grosvenor gallery, London, on invitation of its owner, Sir Coutts Lindsay. However, one incident would stand out in Whistler’s career with the arrival of a man named John Ruskin, Pre-Raphaelite painter who criticized Whistler’s painting, ‘Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge.’ Ruskin said, “For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay 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 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” The following year, in 1878, Whistler brought suit against Ruskin on the grounds that Ruskin had libeled him in a criticism on one of his pictures exhibited at the Grosvenor gallery. This criticism Whistler said injured the sale of his paintings. When it went to court, Ruskin simply said,” it was a fair and bona fide criticism on a painting which the plaintiff had exposed for public view”. Whistler won placing the damages at one farthing.
Nocturne Blue and Gold Old Battersea Bridge by James Abbott McNeill Whistler
In 1886, Whistler was made president of the Society of British artists.
On January 30, 1892, he was created an officer of the Legion of Honor by the French government. He had deserted England and America for Paris spending most of his time there where he received more attention and where his works were ‘favorably’ criticized.
Currently running at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, is an exhibit featuring some of Whistler's drawings and paintings. An American in London Whistler and the Thames 16 October 2013-12 January 2014.
James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), Wapping, 1860–61
James McNeil Whistler self portrait, 1859
For more information about the exhibit, Whistler and the Thames
To read about the exhibit and the friendship between Whistler and John Atkinson Grimshaw, Christies