James Abbott McNeill Whistler: Portrait of an Artist
James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell Massachusetts in 1834.
James lived in St.Petersburg for five years during his childhood. His father, George Washington Whistler a railroad engineer, was involved in the building of the St. Petersburg-Moscow railroad. As a child James became interested in art and had drawing lessons at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts.
Whistler’s mother (the subject of his most famous work) Anna Matilda McNeill, was a devout Christian, whom Whistler loved deeply. In fact, James loved his mother so much, that James eventually changed his middle name ‘Abbott’ to her maiden name ‘McNeill’.
In 1839, Whistler’s father died unexpectedly of cholera and his mother returned to the United Sates and settled the family in Connecticut. Whistler attended West Point Military Academy and dropped out to pursue a career in art. He travelled back to Europe and settled in Paris. He became famous for his flamboyant dress and eccentric manner.
While James was living in France, James met Gustave Courbet, the Realist painter, who was an important influence in Whistler’s life as an artist.
James moved to London in 1859. He discovered the River Thames, and made many etchings of it. While living in London James met Joanna Heffernan, a beautiful red-head. She modeled extensively for him and was his companion for the following seven years. Joanna is the model in: Symphony No 1 the White Girl.
The works which followed had similar design themes of harmony and composition, some were quite decorative. His subjects were often full-length female figures.
In 1863 Whistler's mother moved to England. In 1871 Whistler’s style moved towards greater simplicity and ultimately fame when he painted 'Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother'. His mother sits in profile on a plain chair with a light background. His relationship with Joanna ended and Whistler became depressed. Rumors from the art world said he was aggressive and difficult to work with.
Unfortunately, James was also in deep financial trouble at this time because of a lawsuit against an art critic John Ruskin. Although Whistler won his case, he was never compensated. Whistler declared bankruptcy and moved to Venice with his new mistress Maud Franklin. An exhibition was held upon his return to London in 1880. He was back in the public eye and his damaged reputation was restored. In 1884 he was invited to become a member of the Society of British Artists and was two years later he was elected president.
In 1888 Whistler married the love of his life, Beatrix Goodwin. Tragically Beatrix became sick with cancer and she died at home in London in May 1896. James was devastated.
In the final years of his life Whistler travelled extensively in Europe. He died in 1903 London of heart disease. Whistler was the quintessential artist: he was flamboyant and outrageous; on the other hand, he brought to his art sensitivity and exacting subtlety that earned him respect and a place in the pantheon of great artists.
By Melissa Montgomery