One of the things most people don't realise about art, in fact, something that many artists fail to understand too, is that there is an "art cycle." Impressionism is a perfect example. When it began in the early 1870s, it looked strange, daring, ugly, wildly heretical, and seemed a direct threat to the academic status quo. It was all of these in one sense and none of them in another. During the 1880s, Impressionism gained grudging acceptance, sales increased though prices didn't necessarily follow. By the 1890s many of its adherents were becoming accepted established, painters. By the early 1900s, they (the ones still living that is) were painting icons. And in the meantime, a strange thing was happening, young artists began to reject Impressionism, even some of the Impressionists themselves did so. It lacked substance, it was too confining, it was passť, old hat, antique. This is what amounts to an "art cycle"--rejection, acceptance, veneration, and simultaneously with the latter, more, rejection.
A few artists manage to escape this cycle. In some cases, they paint outside it. In other cases they simply outlive it, or perhaps bridge two or more cycles. Pablo Picasso is an example of the latter, and James McNeill Whistler personifies the former. Picasso came to power in the nascent first decade of the twentieth century as a rowdy young Turk, rejecting Post-Impressionism, trying everything and anything to establish his art. He landed on Cubism, rode out that art cycle and started yet another, what we might call flat abstraction (sometimes called Synthetic Cubism). Critics might argue that he was well on his way to yet another cycle when he died in 1974. He had certainly reached the stage of veneration several times over and indeed, his work was being rejected by a whole new generation of performance, environmental, conceptual, and technologic multimedia artists who found paint itself somehow quaintly old-fashioned.
Whistler was of an earlier age of course. He came out of Courbet and Manet and was in the tradition of the English artist, J. M. W. Turner. He was of the age of Impressionism but not an Impressionist. He could hardly not have been influenced by them, but he was much too elitist to get down and grovel for acceptance with them. He saw design as primary, the paint as secondary, subject as a necessary evil, and colour as of little interest, perhaps even something of a nuisance. Only in the way he applied paint did he have anything in common with the Impressionists, and certainly was antithetical to them in his use of colour. The Impressionists grew up hating black. It was an academic mainstay. Whistler embraced it, doted on it, glorified it in many of his murky nocturnes. Thus, there were no rejections or acceptance of his work (except for the rantings of critic, John Ruskin, who practically destroyed his own career in hating Whistler). And Whistler was too cold ever to be venerated. Such love requires a beloved subject matter, that, but for the one painting of his mother (which has now descended into triteness), Whistler always consciously avoided. Thus, the following generation found an artist whose devotion to flat design they could admire without fawning. He was an artist outside the art cycle--an artist's artist.