James Abbott McNeill Whistler RBA was an American painter active during the American Gilded Age and based primarily in the United Kingdom. He eschewed sentimentality and moral allusion in painting and was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake”. His signature for his paintings took the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail.
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.”