James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Mother - Painting
The symbol combined both aspects of his personality: his art is marked by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative. He found a parallel between painting and music, and entitled many of his paintings “arrangements”, “harmonies”, and “nocturnes”, emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. His most famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), commonly known as Whistler’s Mother, is a revered and often parodied portrait of motherhood.
Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his theories and his friendships with other leading artists and writers.
James Abbott Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on July 11, 1834, the first child of Anna McNeill Whistler and George Washington Whistler, and the brother of Confederate surgeon Dr. William McNeill Whistler. His father was a railroad engineer, and Anna was his second wife. James lived the first three years of his life in a modest house at 243 Worthen Street in Lowell. The house is now the Whistler House Museum of Art, a museum dedicated to him. He claimed St. Petersburg, Russia as his birthplace during the Ruskin trial: “I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell.”
The family moved from Lowell to Stonington, Connecticut in 1837, where his father worked for the Stonington Railroad. Three of the couple’s children died in infancy during this period. Their fortunes improved considerably in 1839 when his father became chief engineer for the Boston & Albany Railroad, and the family built a mansion in Springfield, Massachusetts, where the Wood Museum of History now stands. They lived in Springfield until they left the United States in late 1842. Nicholas I of Russia learned of George Whistler’s ingenuity in engineering the Boston & Albany Railroad, and he offered him a position in 1842 engineering a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and the family moved to St. Petersburg in the winter of 1842/43.
Whistler was a moody child prone to fits of temper and insolence, and he often drifted into periods of laziness after bouts of illness. His parents discovered that drawing often settled him down and helped focus his attention. In later years, he played up his mother’s connection to the American South and its roots, and he presented himself as an impoverished Southern aristocrat, although it remains unclear to what extent he truly sympathized with the Southern cause during the American Civil War. He adopted his mother’s maiden name after she died, using it as an additional middle name.
Russia and England
Beginning in 1842, his father was employed to work on a railroad in Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg to join his father a year later, the young Whistler took private art lessons, then enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Arts at age eleven. The young artist followed the traditional curriculum of drawing from plaster casts and occasional live models, revelled in the atmosphere of art talk with older peers, and pleased his parents with a first-class mark in anatomy. In 1844, he met the noted artist Sir William Allan, who came to Russia with a commission to paint a history of the life of Peter the Great. Whistler’s mother noted in her diary, “the great artist remarked to me ‘Your little boy has uncommon genius, but do not urge him beyond his inclination.'”
In 1847–1848, his family spent some time in London with relatives, while his father stayed in Russia. Whistler’s brother-in-law Francis Haden, a physician who was also an artist, spurred his interest in art and photography. Haden took Whistler to visit collectors and to lectures, and gave him a watercolour set with instruction. Whistler already was imagining an art career. He began to collect books on art and he studied other artists’ techniques. When his portrait was painted by Sir William Boxall in 1848, the young Whistler exclaimed that the portrait was “very much like me and a very fine picture. Mr. Boxall is a beautiful colourist… It is a beautiful creamy surface, and looks so rich.” In his blossoming enthusiasm for art, at fifteen, he informed his father by letter of his future direction, “I hope, dear father, you will not object to my choice.” His father, however, died from cholera at the age of 49, and the Whistler family moved back to his mother’s home town of Pomfret, Connecticut. His art plans remained vague and his future uncertain. The family lived frugally and managed to get by on a limited income. His cousin reported that Whistler at that time was “slight, with a pensive, delicate face, shaded by soft brown curls… he had a somewhat foreign appearance and manner, which, aided by natural abilities, made him very charming, even at that age.”
Whistler was sent to Christ Church Hall School with his mother’s hopes that he would become a minister. Whistler was seldom without his sketchbook and was popular with his classmates for his caricatures. However, it became clear that a career in religion did not suit him, so he applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father had taught drawing and other relatives had attended. He was admitted to the highly selective institution in July 1851 on the strength of his family name, despite his extreme nearsightedness and poor health history. However, during his three years there, his grades were barely satisfactory, and he was a sorry sight at drill and dress, known as “Curly” for his hair length which exceeded regulations. Whistler bucked authority, spouted sarcastic comments, and racked up demerits. Colonel Robert E Lee was the West Point Superintendent and, after considerable indulgence toward Whistler, he had no choice but to dismiss the young cadet. Whistler’s major accomplishment at West Point was learning drawing and map making from American artist Robert W. Weir.
His departure from West Point seems to have been precipitated by a failure in a chemistry exam where he was asked to describe silicon and began by saying, “Silicon is a gas.” As he himself put it later: “If silicon were a gas, I would have been a general one day”. However, a separate anecdote suggests misconduct in drawing class as the reason for Whistler’s departure.
After West Point, Whistler worked as draftsman mapping the entire U.S. coast for military and maritime purposes. He found the work boring and he was frequently late or absent. He spent much of his free time playing billiards and idling about, was always broke, and although a charmer, had little acquaintance with women. After it was discovered that he was drawing sea serpents, mermaids, and whales on the margins of the maps, he was transferred to the etching division of the U.S. Coast Survey. He lasted there only two months, but he learned the etching technique which later proved valuable to his career.
At this point, Whistler firmly decided that art would be his future. For a few months he lived in Baltimore with a wealthy friend, Tom Winans, who even furnished Whistler with a studio and some spending cash. The young artist made some valuable contacts in the art community and also sold some early paintings to Winans. Whistler turned down his mother’s suggestions for other more practical careers and informed her that with money from Winans, he was setting out to further his art training in Paris. Whistler never returned to the United States.
Art study in France
Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855, rented a studio in the Latin Quarter, and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. Soon he had a French girlfriend, a dressmaker named Héloise. He studied traditional art methods for a short time at the Ecole Impériale and at the atelier of Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre. The latter was a great advocate of the work of Ingres, and impressed Whistler with two principles that he used for the rest of his career: that line is more important than color and that black is the fundamental color of tonal harmony. Twenty years later, the Impressionists would largely overthrow this philosophy, banning black and brown as “forbidden colors” and emphasizing color over form. Whistler preferred self-study and enjoying the café life. While letters from home reported his mother’s efforts at economy, Whistler spent freely, sold little or nothing in his first year in Paris, and was in steady debt. To relieve the situation, he took to painting and selling copies from works at the Louvre and finally moved to cheaper quarters. As luck would have it, the arrival in Paris of George Lucas, another rich friend, helped stabilize Whistler’s finances for a while. In spite of a financial respite, the winter of 1857 was a difficult one for Whistler. His poor health, made worse by excessive smoking and drinking, laid him low.
Conditions improved during the summer of 1858. Whistler recovered and traveled with fellow artist Ernest Delannoy through France and the Rhineland. He later produced a group of etchings known as “The French Set”, with the help of French master printer Auguste Delâtre. During that year, he painted his first self-portrait, Portrait of Whistler with Hat, a dark and thickly rendered work reminiscent of Rembrandt. But the event of greatest consequence that year was his friendship with Henri Fantin-Latour, whom he met at the Louvre. Through him, Whistler was introduced to the circle of Gustave Courbet, which included Carolus-Duran (later the teacher of John Singer Sargent), Alphonse Legros, and Édouard Manet.
Also in this group was Charles Baudelaire, whose ideas and theories of “modern” art influenced Whistler. Baudelaire challenged artists to scrutinize the brutality of life and nature and to portray it faithfully, avoiding the old themes of mythology and allegory. Théophile Gautier, one of the first to explore translation qualities among art and music, may have inspired Whistler to view art in musical terms.
Reflecting the banner of realism of his adopted circle, Whistler painted his first exhibited work, La Mere Gerard in 1858. He followed it by painting At the Piano in 1859 in London, which he adopted as his home, while also regularly visiting friends in France. At the Piano is a portrait composed of his niece and her mother in their London music room, an effort which clearly displayed his talent and promise. A critic wrote, “[despite] a recklessly bold manner and sketchiness of the wildest and roughest kind, [it has] a genuine feeling for colour and a splendid power of composition and design, which evince a just appreciation of nature very rare amongst artists.” The work is unsentimental and effectively contrasts the mother in black and the daughter in white, with other colors kept restrained in the manner advised by his teacher Gleyre. It was displayed at the Royal Academy the following year, and in many exhibits to come.
In a second painting executed in the same room, Whistler demonstrated his natural inclination toward innovation and novelty by fashioning a genre scene with unusual composition and foreshortening. It later was re-titled Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room. This painting also demonstrated Whistler’s ongoing work pattern, especially with portraits: a quick start, major adjustments, a period of neglect, then a final flurry to the finish.
After a year in London, as counterpoint to his 1858 French set, in 1860, he produced another set of etchings called Thames Set, as well as some early impressionistic work, including The Thames in Ice. At this stage, he was beginning to establish his technique of tonal harmony based on a limited, pre-determined palette.