“An artist is not paid for his labor, but for his vision.” ~James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Whistler was an American artist who lived in the latter half of the 19th century. He is best known for his paintings and etchings, which often depicted urban landscapes. His work was very influential to the development of modern art, and he is considered one of the most important artists of his time.

Whistler was born in Massachusetts on July 10, 1834.  He was a troubled child, but his parents soon learned that art and drawing helped him focus, and so they fostered the talent. 

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1
Whistler’s Mother

His father was a railroad engineer, thus the family moved around often due to his work, and when James was eight years old, they moved to Russia. James took private art lessons until he was eleven, after which he joined the Imperial Academy of Arts. Sadly, his father later died of an illness, after which James’ mother and the rest of his family moved back to the states. 

Self Portrait

James attempted to work as a mapmaker for the US military, but found the job boring and eventually left. In 1855, he moved to France to further his art studies, but he adopted a bohemian lifestyle and wasted a great deal of time and money. It wasn’t until he was exposed to Realism that he truly found his footing as an artist. 

Symphony in White, No. 1 –
The White Girl

His work began to gain recognition in the early 1860’s. He exhibited his paintings at the Salon and he won several awards. His most famous painting, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” is a portrait of his own mother. It was completed in 1871 and is commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother.” The painting was met with mixed reviews, but it solidified Whistler’s reputation as an important artist.

Nocturne – Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge

Whistler eventually settled in London, where he continued to produce paintings, etchings, and sculptures throughout his career and also became involved in the Aesthetic Movement, and advocated for art to be enjoyed for its beauty rather than its political or social meaning. In 1878, he published a treatise on the subject titled “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.”

Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket

Unfortunately his artistic career was cut short by financial troubles, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1879. He continued to live in England, but he spent much of his time traveling. He became friends with Oscar Wilde in the 1880s, and the two men often attended social gatherings together.

Mother of Pearl and Silver –
The Andalusian

Whistler married Beatrix Godwin in 1888, but after only five years she was struck with illness and eventually died. Whistler followed her soon after, dying in 1903 at the age of 59. His funeral was held at Westminster Abbey, and he was buried in London’s Brookwood Cemetery.

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain

Throughout his career, Whistler was often in conflict with the art establishment. He was a controversial figure, and his work was both praised and criticized by his contemporaries. However, he is now considered to be one of the most important artists of the 19th century, especially with the way he composed light and color.

Alice Butt

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