Skip to main content

James McNeill Whistler collection, 1863-1906

Biographical Note

London-based painter and etcher, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was born in Lowell, Massachusetts and lived in St. Petersburg and London as a child before returning to the United States on the death of his father in 1849. After a failed attempt at a military career at West Point from 1851-1853, he worked as a draftsman for the Coast Survey from 1854-1855 where he received technical instruction in etching. Whistler then left for Paris and remained an expatriot for the rest of his life, living alternately in Paris and London. He studied briefly in Paris at the Ecole Impériale, but was influenced more heavily by his own studies of the great masters and his contemporaries, including Henri Fantin-Latour, Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Courbet, and Edouard Manet.
Whistler's reputation as an etcher was firmly established with the 1858 publication of his group of "French Set" etchings. Shortly thereafter he settled in London and began work on his first major painting At the Piano (1859). His paintings, such as Symphony in White No. 1 The White Girl, (1862; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and later portraits such as Arrangement in Black and Grey No. 1: The Artist's Mother (1871; Musée d'Orsay, Paris), won him international acclaim. His style was not easily defined although he was influenced by Realism and Impressionism and by Japanese art styles, which can be seen in his "Nocturne" landscapes, exhibited in 1877 at the Grovesnor Gallery in London, and influenced the development of his "butterfly signature" in the 1860s.
When art critic John Ruskin wrote a scathing review of the "Nocturnes" exhibition, Whistler sued for libel and won, although the resulting legal fees drove him into bankruptcy. He spent 14 months in Venice on a commission for the Fine Art Society and produced a succession of etchings and pastels that were subsequently exhibited in 1883 and helped to stabilize his financial situation.
In 1885 Whistler, famous for his witty and flamboyant personality, published his Ten O'Clock Lecture which espoused his belief in "art for arts sake," and asserted his refusal to ascribe narratives or morality to his art. Whistler's "Ten O'Clock" drew a response from Oscar Wilde and a public discourse between the two men followed in the London newspapers. It was later published in the pamphlet Wilde v. Whistler: being an acrimonious correspondence on art between Oscar Wilde and James A. McNeill Whistler.
In 1890 Whistler published The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a collection of his best letters and witticisms. The book had originally been the idea of American journalist Sheridan Ford, to whom Whistler had advanced money which he then withdrew with the intent of completing the project alone. When Ford retaliated with a contraband edition of the book, Whistler pursued him through the courts and Ford was tried in Belgium in 1891.
Toward the end of his life Whistler focused increasingly on etching, drypoint and lithography, in addition to interior decoration such as the Peacock Room for Frederick Leyland's London residence begun in 1876. A happy marriage to Beatrix Godwin in 1888 ended in her death in May 1896. By the time of his death in London in 1903, Whistler was regarded as major artist of international renown.