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.

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.

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 1863Symphony 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.

Three of Whistler's best-known portraits, Arrangement in Black and Grey No. 1: The Artist's Mother (Mus e d'Orsay, Paris), Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Thomas Carlyle (1872-1874, City Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow), and Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander (Tate Gallery, London) were painted around 1872. 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.

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. 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.

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