The Work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler

American born, British based artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler emerged and rebelled from an atmosphere of over-sentimentalised romantic painting to pioneer a new style employing delicate technique, sensitive observation and a pugnacious attitude.  Whistler drew parallels between music and art, entitling many of his work ‘arrangements’, ‘harmonies’ and ‘nocturnes’, alluding to their tonal balance and his instinctive sense of visual rhythm.    Influenced by Rembrandt and Velasquez, Whistler also referred to more diverse masters of Japanese art and ancient Greek sculpture.  He was prolific and produced over 500 paintings but mastered a range of disciplines from lithography and etching to watercolour painting and drawing with pastels, all characterised by a fluency of line and subtle, expressive colour and shading.  A leading proponent of the Aesthetic Movement, which extolled the belief and practice of art for art’s sake, Whistler taught his followers that simple techniques and confident execution would result in a harmonious outcome.  He believed that it was an artist’s obligation not to be a slave to reality but to depict truth, in his own words to “bring forth from chaos glorious harmony”.  Defying the embellished, sentimental fashion of the time, Whistler’s work by contrast was startlingly stark.  Born in 1834, Whistler did not belong to one place and travelled extensively throughout his life establishing himself with avant garde European artists early in his career.    After having a piece accepted by the Royal Academy in 1860 his career and reputation flourished due, in part, to his notorious personality.  Counting Oscar Wilde among his friends, he was known for his wit, love of controversy, dandyism and lavish life-style which regularly landed him in debt.  He achieved international recognition, shock and acclaim when ‘Symphony No. 1 The White Girl’ went on show in the Salon des Refusés in 1863.  White would become his trade mark as he dressed all in white and would later live in a house inevitably and appropriately referred to as the white house.  Despite it’s delicacy and gentleness, Whistler’s work was as radical as his forceful persona.  He deviated from the allegories and moral story-telling conventions that preceded and surrounded him and identified with the abstracted motives and pure beauty of music instead.  Famously, in 1877 the critic John Ruskin derided his work and accused him of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”, for which Whistler sued him for liable.  Potential patrons were put off by the negative publicity surrounding the case and this along with the meaningless award of one farthing’s worth of damages when he won contributed to Whistler’s bankruptcy in 1879.  He sold his house shortly after and moved to Venice to complete a series of etchings with a commission from the Fine Arts Society.  This year’s work would inspire the creation of some of his most beautiful innovations in printmaking.  And his fame and success would rise once again.  He married happily but was widowed after 8 years and withdrew from society around the same time although he would continue to make work which inspired the impressionists, symbolists and aestheticists and still inspires the visual language of artists today.  He died in 1903.

 

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