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  Fine ArtsPainterUnited States
Arrangement in Gray, Portrait of the Artist, 1872James Whistler

the only American artist to have a work on display in the Louvre

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.

Symphony in White No. 1Whistler 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.

Arrangement in Black and Gray: Portrait of the Artist's MotherWhistler's 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 Enemies (1890).

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 Washington, D.C.

James Whistler died in London on July 17, 1903.

U.S. Military Academy at West Point

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This page was last updated on 02/27/2015.

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