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James Abbott McNeill Whistler

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American painter and etcher, who assimilated Japanese art styles, made technical innovations, and championed modern art. Many regard him as preeminent among etchers. 

Most of his life was spent in Europe, where he adopted the slogan “art for art’s sake.” By this Whistler meant that art need have no other purpose than to please through its beauty. Art, according to Whistler, need not have an instructive or morally elevating subject matter, as most painters before and during his lifetime believed. Whistler called his paintings by the musical terms symphony, nocturne, arrangement, caprice, composition etc. because he claimed that 

“as music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of color.” 

Whistler was born on July 10, 1834, in Lowell, Massachusetts. He entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1851, did not do well in his studies, and left in 1854 to take a job as a draftsman with the U.S. Coast Survey. 

One year later he left the United States and went to Paris, where he became a pupil of the Swiss classicist painter Charles Gabriel Gleyre. 

Formal instruction influenced him less, however, than his acquaintance with the French realist painter Gustave Courbet, other leading contemporary artists, and his own study of the great masters and of Japanese styles. 

  • USA 1940. Scott#885. From the series "Famous Americans", J.A.M. Whistler. The stamp is pretty small, only 2.5 x 2.8 cm, so it is shown here largely oversized for a better view. 

USA 1940. From the series Famous Americans. James A.M. Whistler. Scott # 885.

In Paris, Whistler won recognition as an etcher when his first series of etchings, Twelve Etchings from Nature (commonly called The French Set), appeared in 1858. Soon after he moved to London, where his paintings, hitherto rejected repeatedly by the galleries of Paris, found acceptance. At the Piano was shown by the Royal Academy of London in 1860. In 1863 Symphony in White No. 1:The White Girl (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) won great acclaim in Paris. Thereafter exhibitions of his work aroused increasing international interest, as did his flamboyantly eccentric personality. 

Micronesia 2003. J.A.M. Whistler. Commemorative souvenir sheet.

These three paintings were issued on a souvenir sheet by Micronesia, commemorating the artist's death centenary. 

  • Micronesia 2003. Commemorative souvenir sheet showing: 

    • Symphony in White No. 2. The Little White Girl. 1864. Tate Gallery, London. 

    • At The Piano. 1858-1859. Taft Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. 

    • Symphony in White No. 1, The White Girl. 1862. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. 

Two of Whistler's best-known portraits, Arrangement in Black and Grey No. 1: The Artist's Mother (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), and Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Thomas Carlyle (1872-1874, City Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow), were painted around 1872.  

The primary title of the portrait of his mother, Anne Matilda McNeill Whistler, which he painted when she visited him in London, was "An Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1" (1871, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). It is a nearly monochromatic (single-color) composition of rectangles -- the baseboard, the curtain, the picture frames, the rug -- that is broken by the asymmetrical profile of the woman. Whistler’s adherence to basic geometric forms in this painting anticipated the minimal art of the 1960s. 

Sharjah 1968. J.A.M. Wjhistler. "The Artist's Mother".

Micronesia 2003. J.A.M. Whistler. "Thomas Carlyle".

USA 1934. Scott # 737 - 738 - 754.  J.A.M. Whistler. FDC franked with the painting of "The Artist's Mother". USA 1934. Scott # 737 - 738 - 754. J.A.M. Whistler. Close-up of "The Artist's Mother".
  • USA 1934. Close-up of the painting "The Artist's Mother". 

    Note that the stamp exists in both Rotary Press Printing and Flat Plate Printing. For identifying the method of printing, please refer to the link given at the bottom of this page. 

Fujeira 1968. J.A.M. Whistler. Caprice in Purple and Gold.

In 1877 he exhibited a number of landscapes done in the Japanese manner; these paintings, which he called nocturnes, outraged conservative art opinion, which did not understand his avoidance of narrative detail, his layers of atmospheric color, and his belief in art for art's sake. 

The English art critic John Ruskin wrote a caustically critical article, and Whistler, charging slander, sued Ruskin for damages. He won the case, one of the most celebrated of its kind, but the expense of the trial forced him into bankruptcy.  Selling the contents of his studio, Whistler left England, worked intensively from 1879 to 1880 in Venice, then returned to England and resumed his attack on the academic art tradition. 

  • Fujeira 1968. Caprice in Purple and Gold. 

In later years Whistler devoted himself increasingly to etching, drypoint, lithography, and interior decoration. The Thames series (1860), the First Venice series (1880), and the Second Venice series (1881) heightened his standing as an etcher and won him success when they were exhibited in London in 1881 and 1883. Below is a set of his Venetian series. 

Micronesia 2003. J.A.M. Whistler. Venetian paintings. "Symphony in Blue and Silver". Micronesia 2003. J.A.M. Whistler. Venetian paintings. "Composition in Brown and Silver". Micronesia 2003. J.A.M. Whistler. Venetian paintings. "Nocturne in Blue and Silver". Micronesia 2003. J.A.M. Whistler. Venetian paintings. "Arrangement in Silver and Blue".

Palau has issued a nice souvenir sheet showing four different portraits of the more notable ones, all executed in a very stringent, yet dramatic and elegant style, that was characteristic for the artist. The basic geometric forms are repeated in these paintings, only broken by the asymmetrical profile of the persons portrayed.

Palau 2003. J.A.M. Whistler. Commemorative souvenir sheet.

The Peacock Room, which he painted for a private London residence (begun 1876 and moved in 1919 to the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), is the most noteworthy example of his interior decoration. 

Toward the end of his life, when he lived in Paris, Whistler came to be regarded as a major artist. He died in London on July 17, 1903. 

Sources and links:

Many thanks to Mr. Ralph Ambrose (USA), Mr. Tom Loepp (USA), and Mr. Blair Stannard (Canada) for all help, research, and encouragement. 

Other Impressionist painters on this site (in alphabetical order). 

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