only American artist to have a work on display in
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
was born in Lowell, Massachusetts,
on July 14, 1834. In 1843, he moved with his
family to St. Petersburg, Russia, where his
father directed the construction of a railroad.
He returned to the United States in 1849. In
1851, he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but was expelled during his junior
year because of low grades in chemistry. From
November 1854 to February 1855, he worked as a
chartmaker for the United States Coast and
Geodetic Survey. He showed little interest in the
job, but did receive excellent training in the
technique of etching. He went to Paris to study
art in 1855, and moved to London in 1859, where
he spent most of the rest of his life.
Whistler named many of his paintings for
types of musical compositions, such as nocturnes
and symphonies. He believed that paintings, like
music, should be abstract, and that the forms in
a painting are more important than the subject. Symphony
in White No. 1 (1862) is just one example of
his earlier works.
best-known painting is Arrangement in Gray
and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother
(1872), commonly called Whistler's Mother.
The flattened forms and unsymmetrical composition
of this painting are characteristic of Whistler's
style. which was influenced by Japanese artists
who used similar techniques in their woodcuts. It
is currently the only painting by an American
artist hanging in the Louvre.
English art critic John Ruskin
criticized one of Whistler's most abstract
paintings, Nocturne in Black and Gold--The
Falling Rocket (ca. 1874), declaring that
Whistler had flung "a pot of paint in the
public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for
libel and defended his theories on art in court.
He won the case but received less than a penny in
damages. Although the cost of the lawsuit forced
Whistler into bankruptcy, Whistler enjoyed the
publicity that the case brought him. He included
excerpts from his defense in a book of his
collected writings, The Gentle Art of Making
In addition to his paintings,
Whistler also created about 440 etchings,
including many illustrations of Venice and the
River Thames. The most famous example of
Whistler's interior decoration is the Peacock
Room, which he designed for a house in London;
the room is now in the Freer Gallery in
James Whistler died in London
on July 17, 1903.
U.S. Military Academy at West Point
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