Artists & Designers

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American-born painter and printmaker. He studied drawing in St. Petersburg and etching as a student at West Point. He immersed himself in Realism in Paris and embraced Aestheticism in London. He spent an extremely productive year in Venice from 1879-1880, before returning to London for much of the rest of his life. Well-known in his own time, Whistler worked prolifically across media and published polemics about the role of art in the modernizing world. He was the frequent subject of art criticism and even satirical cartoons, and is agreed to be the inspiration behind Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

Whistler’s Twelve Etchings from Nature, or “French set” of en plein air etchings of people and scenes near Paris were his first published prints. At a time when prints were seen as a cheap, mass medium, and etchings were mostly used to reproduce other artworks, Whistler treated his etchings as original works of art. This attitude would later become the central tenet of the Etching Revival. In addition to giving new artistic significance to etchings, Whistler defended the inherent importance of artistic genius and expression in the infamous 1877 Ruskin Trial. Whistler sued art critic John Ruskin for libel after the he wrote that Whistler’s painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket was overpriced for the apparent lack of artistic skill and labor. Whistler bankrupted himself and won the trial, defending the monetary value of artistic genius in what was arguably one of the first abstract paintings.

His two greatest patrons were Frederick Leyland in London and Charles Lang Freer in Detroit. Leyland was deeply involved in Whistler’s early years in London in the 1850s and 1860s, while Freer was an important patron of his later work after 1890. Whistler’s interest in East Asian aesthetics and pottery was important to both patrons. Whistler designed his only complete interior, The Peacock Room, as Leyland’s dining room. A gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, The Room has decoration on every surface and houses Leyland’s extensive Kangxi porcelain collection and existing collection of paintings by Whistler. Leyland’s displeasure with The Peacock Room resulted in the end of their working relationship. Freer would later acquire much of Leyland’s collection, including the room in its entirety. After Freer met Whistler in 1890, he expanded his American collection to include Asian art.

Whistler was well connected and influential. In Paris, he befriended Gustave Courbet, Claude Monet, Charles Baudelaire, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Whistler was very close friends with Pre-Raphelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who inspired Whistler to collect blue-and-white porcelain. Whistler also shared a studio with John Singer Sargent in Venice, and inspired his American contemporaries like William Merrit Chase and Ernest Haskell. He published the transcript of the Ruskin trial in his 1890 The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, along with other letters he wrote in defense of his art to newspapers and friends. This publicized dialogue of art theory laid the groundwork for subsequent generations of artists to speak for their work when it failed to achieve popular acceptance. Whistler’s international aesthetic influences, and his heavily theorized and documented practice was a new model for an artist in the modern world. Though an unreliable narrator of his own life, Whistler expanded the role of an artist and of art.

Rebecca Singerman, 2018-2019 McDermott Graduate Intern for American Art

Drawn from

  • Rebecca Singerman, DMA unpublished material, 2018.

  • David Park Curry, James McNeill Whistler: Uneasy Pieces (Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2004).

  • Joanna Meacock, “Apostles of the New Gospel: Whistler and Rossetti,” in James McNeill Whistler in Context (Whistler Centenary Symposium, University of Glasgow: Freer Gallery of Art Occasional Papers, 2003).

  • Grischka Petri, Arrangement in Business: The Art Markets and the Career of James McNeill Whistler, Studien Zur Kunstgeschichte, Band 191 (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2011).

  • Deanna Marohn Bendix, Diabolical Designs: Paintings, Interiors, and Exhibitions of James McNeill Whistler (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).

  • "The 'French Set'," University of Glasgow, accessed December 17, 2018, http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk/catalogue/sets_texts/?eid=french.

  • H. Barbara Weinberg, “James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903).” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, accessed December 17, 2018, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/whis/hd_whis.htm.

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