Friday 1 July 2011

James McNeill Whistler - part 1

Portrait of Whistler by Walter Greaves

I’ve been posting a lot of mid-century and contemporary artists lately, and lots more to come, but I thought I’d take a look a bit further back now and then – this one is more mid-nineteenth century.

James (Abbott) McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834. He spent five years of his childhood (1843-1848) in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father, a railway engineer, was employed in the building of the St. Petersburg to Moscow railway. As a young man Whistler changed his middle name ‘Abbott’ for his mother’s maiden name ‘McNeill’. In St. Petersburg young James received his first art lessons in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts and also learnt French.

Whistler’s father died in 1849 and his mother decided to take the family back to America, settling at Pomfret, Connecticut, where James attended the local school until, in 1851, he entered West Point, the military academy, as his father had done before him. West Point at the time was an exclusive school where cadets were selected by Congressmen. The fact that his father had trained at West Point probably secured his entry. Never becoming a military man, Whistler remembered the three years spent at the academy with affection. Among all subjects Whistler succeeded only in drawing, special difficulties were caused by chemistry, which at last became the reason of his ejection from the academy. "Had silicon been a gas," he later declared, "I would have been a General-Major."

West Point was followed by a brief period of employment in the United States Geodetic and Coast Survey offices in Washington. In 1855, Whistler arrived in Paris, the artistic capital of Europe, with the intention of becoming an artist.

After a short period at the École Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin, he enrolled at the studio of Charles-Gabriel Gleyre (1806-74). At Gleyre’s, Whistler became part of the ‘Paris Gang’, a group of young English artists that included Edward Poynter (1836-1919), later president of the Royal Academy, Thomas Armstrong (1832-1911), Thomas Lamont (1826-98) and George du Maurier (1834-96).
In 1858, Whistler set out on a tour of Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland, during which he made a set of etchings Twelve Etchings from Nature, better known as the French Set. Praise of the work encouraged Whistler to continue etching. Between 1858 and 1863 he produced 80 plates, Rotherhithe (1860), among them.

1860 Rotherhithe
In 1858-59, Whistler set to work on his first major painting, At the Piano, his first masterpiece, which marked the end of his student years and the onset of artistic independence. The work was rejected by the Salon.

1858-9 At the Piano
That same year Whistler moved to London, which remained his base of operations until 1892. From there Whistler made frequent visits abroad. In 1861, he started to work on Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl. The model was his mistress, Jo. Symphony in White No.1 came closest in mood to Pre-Raphaelitism. Later, in 1863, Whistler became acquainted with the Pre-Raphaelite group.

1862 Symphony in White No 1: The White Girl

In 1866, Whistler traveled to South America where the Chileans were engaged in a war against Spain, he kept a journal of naval and military developments but avoided involvement in any fighting.
In 1877, Whistler began to paint a series of ‘Nocturnes’ based on the Thames views at night. One of his most famous works in this series in Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, originally called ‘Moonlights’. His patron, Frederick Leyland, an enthusiastic pianist, suggested the term ‘Nocturne’. Whistler replied, ‘I can’t thank you too much for the name Nocturne as the 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 I want to say and no more than I wish.’

1877 Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge

Critics were outraged. John Ruskin, when seeing Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket and other night scenes at the opening exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 wrote: ‘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 sued Ruskin for libel and won the trial. Whistler was awarded a farthing damages.

1875 Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket 
oil on wood
In 1876, Whistler undertook the decoration of the famous Peacock Room in the London house of his patron, Frederick Leyland. In the end, the artist and the patron quarreled bitterly over the room, and the quarrel grew into deep hatred. The loss of Leyland as a patron and the effect of Ruskin’s harsh criticism left Whistler in a bad financial position. In 1879, Whistler was declared bankrupt and left for Venice for the next 14 months. During that stay in Venice, he produced four oils, many etchings and almost 100 pastels.

1876 Peacock Room
After two successful one-exhibitions at Dowdeswells in 1884 and 1886, Whistler’s reputation steadily began to mount. In 1884, he was invited to become a member of the Society of British Artists and two years later was elected its president. In 1886, Whistler painted Harmony in Red: Lamplight. Portrait of Mrs. Beatrice Godwin. Her husband died in 1886 and two years later she became Whistler’s wife. The daughter of the sculptor John Bernie Philip, she was also an artist in her own right and Whistler frequently turned to her for advice while painting his portraits. With Beatrice, Whistler moved to Paris in 1892. She died four years later, in 1896.

1886 Harmony in Red: Lamplight
Meanwhile Whistler’s reputation had soared. In 1891, Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1: The Artist’s Mother was acquired by the French State and that same year Glasgow Corporation paid a thousand guineas for the Portrait of Thomas Carlyle. Having exhibited at several important international exhibitions, Whistler was awarded honours by Munich, Amsterdam and Paris. Whistler died in 1903 in London.

1871 Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother 
oil on canvas

1872-3 Arrangement in Grey and Black No 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle

Other works by James McNeill Whistler - more in part 2:

1860-61 Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room

1861-4 Wapping

1862 The Last of Old Westminster Bridge

1864 Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks

1864 Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain

1864 Symphony in White No 2: The Little White Girl

1865 Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville

1865 The Artist's Studio

1865-7 Symphony in White No 3

1866 Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso Bay

1868-78c Three Figures: Pink and Grey

1871 Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea

1871 Symphony in Grey: Early Morning Thames

1871-3 Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland

1871-4c Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Westminster Bridge

1872 Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights

1872-4 Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander

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