- James McNeill Whistler
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James McNeill Whistler

"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."

Although we like to think of James Abbot McNeill Whistler as an "American" artist, the truth is he lived in this country for a grand total of but six years in his late teens. Born in 1834, even in childhood he was something of an international figure, sometimes referred to as an expatriate. His father was a railroad engineer and spent time working in Russia as well as a number of other European countries. As a young man, he settled in Paris, took up a Bohemian lifestyle, and became a painter. His early work was heavily influenced by the French realists Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet.

Whistler was most interested not in subject matter in his paintings, which he considered only a means to an end, but with the formal qualities of the painting itself--colours, composition, tonalities, values, textures, and the pigments themselves. His 1862 painting of his mistress, entitled The White Girl, a woman dressed in white on a white background, he subtitled Symphony in White. His most famous work, the painting of his mother, further illustrates this tendency. It was entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black. In later years he moved to London and became fascinated by the work of J.M.W. Turner and the abstract, painterly qualities of his work, which he quickly integrated into his own.

In London he painted a number of nocturnes (night scenes) including Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. This painting depicts a fireworks display over the Thames River and can only be termed an "adventurous use of pigment." Never one to accept criticism easily or take rejection lightly, the artist was outraged when the English critic John Ruskin wrote that Whistler had flung "a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued for libel, and won the case after a much-publicised trial, but was awarded only one farthing in damages.

contributed by Lane, Jim

27 December 1997

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