Childhood & Early Life
James Abbott Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1834, to Anna Matilda McNeill and George Washington Whistler. He had several siblings, many of whom died in their childhood. His father was a railroad engineer.
His father was appointed as a chief engineer for the Boston & Albany Railroad in 1839, a position which earned him considerable fame and fortune. Tsar Nicholas I learned of George Whistler's amazing work with the Boston & Albany Railroad, and offered him an engineering position in 1842 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Thus the family moved to Russia in 1842.
James developed an interest in drawing and sketching at a young age. As a child he was prone to mood swings and temper tantrums but would calm down when offered the chance to draw and paint.
After moving to Russia, he took private art lessons and enrolled at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts at the age of 11. He excelled in his education and started displaying signs of greatness.
He visited London with his family in the late 1840s and got the chance to meet art collectors and attend lectures. By now James had started collecting art books and studying other artists’ techniques.
He decided to pursue art as a career and was hoping for support from his family. However, tragedy struck when his loving father unexpectedly died of an illness, forcing the Whistler family to move back to his mother's hometown of Pomfret, Connecticut.
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James Abbott Whistler applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point and was selected in 1851. However, the army life did not suit him—he regularly broke the rules and performed poorly in courses and drill. The only aspect of army life that he liked was learning drawing and map making from American artist Robert W. Weir. He was eventually dismissed from the academy because of his misdemeanor.
By now he was convinced that he was meant to be an artist and moved to Europe to study art, arriving in Paris, France, in 1855. There he adopted the Bohemian lifestyle and became involved with the French modern movement.
He painted his first exhibited work, ‘La Mere Gerard’ in 1858. He then moved to London and settled there even though he continued making frequent visits to Paris. In 1859, he painted a portrait of his niece and her mother in their London music room, ‘At the Piano’.
The year 1861 was an eventful one for him. His painting, ‘Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl’, a portrait of his mistress Joanna became the first of his famous works. It was critically acclaimed and shown in a private gallery under the title ‘The Woman in White’.
During the 1860s, he became fascinated with nocturnal paintings, night scenes primarily set in harbors, painted with a blue or light green palette. He painted several such “nocturnes” over the ensuing years, many of which were of the River Thames and of Cremorne Gardens.
The 1860s marked a very creative period for the artist, and he started assigning musically inspired names to his paintings. Some of his famous works from this period are ‘Rose and Silver: La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine’ (1864), ‘Caprice in Purple and Gold, No. 2: The Golden Screen’ (1864), and ‘Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean’ (1866–67).
He was also a very renowned portrait painter. One day in 1871, a model for one of his portraits failed to appear, and thus Whistler asked his mother to pose for the portrait. The elderly lady agreed, and he painted what came to be known as ‘Whistler’s Mother’.
He also painted several other portraits during the 1870s including those of Thomas Carlyle (1873), Maud Franklin (1876), Cicely Alexander (1873), and full length portraits of F.R. Leyland and his wife Frances. Impressed by his work, Leyland commissioned the artist to decorate his dining room.
He began work on Leyland’s dining room, and converted it into a magnificent piece of art, now referred to as ‘Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room’. The interior decorative mural art, painted in a rich and unified palette of brilliant blue-greens with over-glazing and metallic gold leaf, is considered a high example of the Anglo-Japanese style.
Whistler joined the Society of British Artists in 1884 and was eventually made its president. During the later part of his career, he focused on lithography, the process of printing on metal, creating a series featuring London architecture and the human figure.
Awards & Achievements
He was elected an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1884.
In 1892, he was made an officer of the Légion d'honneur in France.
He became a charter member and first president of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in 1898.
Personal Life & Legacy
James Abbott McNeill Whistler was romantically involved with several women. He was once in a relationship with model Joanna Hiffernan, and became involved with Maud Franklin after breaking up with Joanna. He had several illegitimate children.
He married Beatrice Godwin, the widow of his friend E. W. Godwin, in 1888. Theirs was a very happy marriage that was unfortunately cut short when his wife died of cancer. Her death shattered him and he never recovered fully from his grief.
He died in London on July 17, 1903, at the age of 69.