Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Whistler, James Abbott McNeill
WHISTLER, JAMES ABBOTT McNEILL (1834–1903), painter, was eldest son (in a family of seven sons and one daughter) of George Washington Whistler, an American artillery officer whose life was mostly spent as a civil engineer, by his second wife, Anna Mathilda McNeill of Wilmington, North Carolina, who was connected with the Winans family of Baltimore. His half-sister, Dasha Delano, married in 1847 (Sir) Francis Seymour Haden [q. v. Suppl. II]. He was born on 10 July 1834 at Lowell, Massachusetts, in a house which is now a Whistler Memorial Museum. Christened James Abbott, he afterwards added to his Christian names his mother's maiden surname of ‘McNeill,’ and finally was in the habit of signing himself ‘James McNeill Whistler,’ or ‘J. M. N. Whistler,’ except in official documents. His paternal descent was from an old English family which had branches in Sussex, Oxfordshire, and Ireland. He sprang from the Irish branch. Maternally, he threw back to the McNeills of Skye, many of whom emigrated to North Carolina after the Jacobite rising of 1745. In 1842 Major Whistler, the boy's father, was appointed engineer to the railway then about to be built from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and in the following year summoned his wife and family to Russia, where they settled in St. Petersburg. In 1846 Whistler was put to a school kept by one Jourdan, but in 1849 he left Russia for good. Major Whistler died in the spring of that year, and his widow, with her boys, returned to America. There she settled in Pomfret, Connecticut, and sent her son to a school kept by an alumnus of West Point who had turned parson. In 1851, after two years at this school, Whistler entered the Military Academy at West Point, where he remained for three years. He distinguished himself in drawing, but failed in other subjects and had to leave.
His next occupation was on the United States coast and geodetic survey, which gave him a useful training in accurate drawing and the technique of etching. After a year of the survey, he finally adopted art for his career. In the summer of 1855 he went to Paris, provided with a yearly income of 350 dollars. He entered the studio presided over by Charles Gleyre, to whom Paul Delaroche had bequeathed his pupils when he ceased to teach. In Paris he lived the regulation life of a student on a small income, living well one week, put to all sorts of shifts the next. To his companions, who included du Maurier, Poynter, Thomas Armstrong, and Val Prinsep, he appeared to be the reverse of industrious. He soaked in knowledge and skill, nevertheless, and became a fine draughtsman, a painter who could produce the results he aimed at, and a master of etching. His life in Paris was varied by excursions into other parts of France, during which he was never idle. In 1858 he published a set of thirteen etchings known as ‘The French Set,’ the material for which had been mostly gleaned in eastern France the year before, or in 1856. At this time he was influenced by the principles of Courbet and Lecoq de Boisbaudran, by the practice of Rembrandt, Hals, and Velazquez, and, no doubt, by the companionship of more young French painters whom he found sympathetic: Fantin-Latour and Legros chief among them. He copied many pictures in the Louvre, mostly in fulfilment of commissions from American friends. The first original picture done in Paris was ‘Mère Gerard’ (now owned by the executors of A. C. Swinburne), which was soon followed by ‘The Piano Picture’ or ‘At the Piano.’ The latter was rejected by the Salon jury of 1859, and this may have had something to do with the nibblings at London by which it was immediately followed. He spent some months in the English capital in 1859, renewing friendships made abroad and making new ones, and laying the foundations of a notoriety which was in time to blossom into fame. He stayed with his half-sister, Mrs. Francis Seymour Haden, and practised etching with his brother-in-law, the two exerting a mutual influence one upon the other. Whistler first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859, sending two ‘etchings from nature.’ In 1860 his ‘At the Piano’ was accepted at the Royal Academy and bought by an academician, John Phillip [q. v.]; it now belongs to Mr. Edmund Davis. In the same exhibitions were shown two dry-point portraits and three etchings. This modest success probably confirmed him in the intention to settle in London, which was practically his domicile from 1860 till his death.
During his first twelve months in London he was chiefly occupied with a series of sixteen etchings of the scenery and life of the Thames, including ‘The Pool,’ ‘Thames Police,’ and ‘Black Lion Wharf.’ He was much at Wapping, and etched the life of the neighbourhood and its framing. The chief pictures of the same period were ‘The White Girl,’ ‘The Thames in Ice,’ and ‘The Music Room.’ In 1861 he visited France again, painting on the coast of Brittany. A year later he travelled as far as Fuentarrabia on a journey to Madrid which was never completed. In 1863 he took his first London house, 7 Lindsey Row, now 101 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. There he was joined by his mother, who had left America on the outbreak of the civil war. During these years he sent regularly to the Royal Academy, where his pictures met with quite as good a reception as a man of original genius, who was opening up a new walk in art, had any right to expect. Chief among them were ‘On the Thames,’ ‘Alone with the Tide,’ and ‘The Last of Old Westminster.’ During these years he also drew for some of the illustrated periodicals, contributing two drawings to ‘Good Words’ in 1862, and four to ‘Once a Week’ in the same year. It was about this time that Whistler became strongly affected by the example of the Japanese. For years his work bore much the same relation to Japanese art as all fine painting does to nature. He took from Japanese ideals the beauties he admired, and re-created them as expressions of his own personality. The ‘Lange Leizen,’ ‘The Gold Screen,’ ‘The Balcony,’ the ‘Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine,’ are in no sense Japanese pictures, but they are full of Japanese material. Probably the finest æsthetic spark struck out by his contact with Japan is the exquisite picture variously known as ‘The Little White Girl’ and ‘Symphony in White, No. II.’ It was at the Royal Academy in 1865, with ‘The Gold Screen’ and ‘Old Battersea Bridge,’ and is now the property of Mr. Arthur Studd. In this year Whistler revisited eastern France and western Germany, and spent part of the autumn at Trouville, with Courbet for companion. In 1866 he made a sudden expedition to Chili, where he seems to have been implicated in some rather absurd war making, but found time to paint five pictures of Valparaiso, some of which are among his greater successes. At the close of this year he moved to a new house, now 96 Cheyne Row, where he remained longer than in any other of his numerous domiciles.
The years between 1866 and 1872 were busy. He exhibited more often than before or after. The chief pictures of this period were a ‘Valparaiso,’ ‘Sea and Rain,’ ‘The Balcony,’ and the famous ‘Portrait of my Mother.’ Whistler's uncomfortable relations with the Royal Academy began with the exhibition of this last-named picture. Rejected at first, it was only hung through the insistence of one member of the council. After 1872 Whistler exhibited no picture at Burlington House. Nothing of his was thenceforth seen there save an etching of ‘Old Putney Bridge’ in 1879. No doubt Whistler's irritation was deepened by the fact that, although his name remained for years on the candidates' book, he never came near to being elected into the Academy. These years about 1870 saw the production of most of his ‘Nocturnes,’ studies of tone, colour, and atmosphere to which the history of art then afforded no parallel; also the portraits of Carlyle and the fine ‘Miss Alexander’ (now belonging to Mr. W. C. Alexander). In these pictures Whistler first worked his initials into a fantastic shape resembling a butterfly, which soon became his accustomed signature.
In 1874 Whistler opened a show of his own work at 48 Pall Mall, the first of those occasions on which he appealed to the public almost as much by the setting of his pictures as by the works themselves. At this time he was also painting the famous peacock room, for Frederick Robert Leyland, in Prince's Gate: it is now at Mr. C. L. Freer's residence in Detroit. In 1877 he was represented by eight pictures, mostly loans, at the first exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery. To the same gallery he sent in 1879 a portrait of Miss Connie Gilchrist [now Countess of Orkney], ‘The Gold Girl: a Harmony in Yellow and Gold,’ which was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of New York in 1911.
One of his first exhibits at the Grosvenor Gallery, ‘The Falling Rocket, a nocturne in Black and Gold,’ was the nail on which Ruskin hung strong abuse of the artist in ‘Fors Clavigera,’ where Whistler was described as a ‘coxcomb’ asking ‘two hundred guineas for throwing a pot of paint in the public's face.’ Whistler brought an action for libel against the critic, which was heard before Baron Huddleston on 25 Nov. 1878. Burne-Jones and Frith were among Ruskin's witnesses. Whistler won his verdict, with a farthing damages, but had to pay his own costs. He set forth his view of the litigation in a shilling pamphlet, ‘Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics’ (1879, 12mo). For years before he had been ordering his life with extreme carelessness in financial matters, keeping open house, never hesitating over the cost of anything he thought necessary to his art or to his conception of his needs. All this, added to the costs of the trial and the loss of the money-making power which it involved, brought about his bankruptcy in 1879. He had left Cheyne Row at the end of 1878, and moved to the ‘White House’ in Tite Street, built for him by Edward William Godwin [q. v.], but this had to be sold with the rest of his effects in 1879. At the end of this year he went to Venice, where he spent the winter in producing a number of etchings and pastels on the commission of the Fine Art Society. They excited great interest and some controversy when shown on his return; and they sold well. From this time onward he worked much in pastel, producing those dainty notes from the model, nude and semi-nude, which were soon much sought after. He came back to London early in 1880. In 1881 his mother died at Hastings. In the same year he settled at No. 13 Tite Street, where he painted many of the best pictures of his later years. Among these were the portrait of Lady Meux, ‘M. Duret,’ ‘The Blue Girl,’ and the ‘Yellow Buskin’ (Lady Archibald Campbell), which is in the Memorial Hall, Philadelphia. In 1884 Whistler sent twenty-five of his pictures to Ireland, where they were exhibited by the Dublin Sketching Club. In 1885 he moved from Tite Street to No. 454 Fulham Road; he made a tour in Belgium and Holland with Mr. W. M. Chase, the American painter; and he first gave the lecture which has become famous, the ‘Ten o'clock.’ In 1884 he had joined the Society of British Artists, which elected him its president in June 1886. His presidency was not of long duration, being determined in June 1888. His ways were too autocratic and his aims too free of the commercial spirit for the majority of his colleagues. In 1887 he travelled in Belgium with his brother, Dr. Whistler, and etched in Brussels. In 1888 Whistler married a pupil of his own, Beatrix Godwin, the widow of E. W. Godwin, and the daughter of John Birnie Philip [q. v.]. He had left Fulham Road for the Tower House, in Tite Street, but the early months after his marriage were spent in France, where he etched many plates in Touraine and its neighbourhood. The following year he worked in Holland, etching in the neighbourhood of Amsterdam and Dordrecht. In 1889 he exhibited at the Paris International Exhibition, in the British section. The next year saw yet another change of abode, to 21 Cheyne Walk, but its chief event was the publication of ‘The Gentle Art of Making Enemies,’ in which Whistler built up a sort of declaration of his artistic faith by reprinting, with comments, his letters to his ‘enemies,’ the Ruskin trial, his ‘Ten o'clock,’ &c. In 1891 his ‘Carlyle’ was bought for Glasgow and his ‘Mother’ for the Luxembourg, the former for 1000l., the latter for 160l. The ‘Luxembourg’ also soon acquired his ‘Old Man Smoking.’ These purchases marked the beginning of the general acceptance of Whistler as a great painter, which was confirmed by the success of an exhibition held at Goupil's in Bond Street in the following year, and by that of his appearance at the Chicago Exhibition. In 1892 he moved to Paris, to a house in the Rue du Bac, where he painted several of the best portraits of his later years, and also busied himself much with lithography and a little with etching. In 1895 he was defendant in an action brought against him in the Paris court by Sir William Eden for refusing to deliver his portrait of Lady Eden, for which he had been paid. Whistler was allowed to keep the picture, but was amerced in costs, and the trial established, so far as France was concerned, an artist's right in his own work. In 1899 he published ‘The Baronet and the Butterfly’ [i.e. Whistler's monogram], a report of the litigation.
During 1895 Whistler was for a time at Lyme Regis, and his picture ‘The Master-Smith of Lyme Regis’ is at the Boston Museum: he also had a studio at No. 8 Fitzroy Street, and afterwards a cottage at Hampstead. There Mrs. Whistler died on 10 May 1896. After her death, by which he was profoundly affected, he stayed with Mr. William Heinemann, in Whitehall Court, for nearly three years. In 1898 he was elected president of the newly founded International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Engravers. It was a post for which he was peculiarly fitted in one way, at least, for he had excelled in all the forms of art practised by his colleagues, with the exception of sculpture. He had painted in water-colour as well as oil, he had mastered dry-point as well as etching, he had lithographed, and he had proved himself a decorator of genius. He held this dignity till his death, and to the society's affairs he devoted much of his energy during his last years. In the same year he had been concerned in founding an atelier for students in Paris, partly for the benefit of a former model, Madame Carmen Rossi, after whom it was subsequently called the ‘Académie Carmen.’ This he visited as master during the three years of its existence. In 1900 he received a grand prix for painting and another for engraving at the Paris Exhibition du Centenaire, exhibiting this time in the American section. In 1900 he made a short stay in Ireland, in a house called Craigie, at Sutton, near Dublin, and at the end of the same year made an expedition to Tangier, Algiers, the South of France, and Corsica, in search of health. In May 1901 he returned to England, which he never left again except for a short visit to Holland in 1902. He died on Friday, 17 July 1903, at 74 Cheyne Walk, and was buried in Chiswick churchyard, by the side of his wife and not far from the grave of Hogarth. An elaborately sculptured tomb by Mr. Edward Godwin was erected in 1912. Whistler had no issue.
Whistler was an officer of the Legion of Honour, a member of the Société Nationale des Artistes Francais, commander of the Order of the Crown of Italy, chevalier of the Order of St. Michael, honorary member of the Academy of St. Luke, Rome, and of the Royal Academies of Bavaria and Dresden, and LL.D. of Glasgow University. Few painters have exercised a deeper or wider influence over their contemporaries than Whistler. All that is good in real impressionism sprang originally from his teaching and example, and even now no one has equalled the unity and repose of his best works, ‘The Little White Girl,’ the ‘Mother,’ ‘Miss Alexander,’ ‘Carlyle,’ ‘Duret,’ ‘Sarasate,’ or even the little picture—nocturne blue and gold—‘Old Battersea Bridge,’ at the Tate Gallery, which, first exhibited in 1877, was presented by the National Art Collections Fund in 1905 and is, so far, his only representative in the London collections. The ‘Sarasate’ is at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg. But a tragic element was brought into his life by the conflicting strains in his own character. A love of pose, which found vent in eccentricities of dress, in extravagant paradox and biting epigram, gave him social notoriety. More exclusively an artist, perhaps, in his work than any painter since the days of Rembrandt, he yet thirsted after the worldly honours and acclamations which are only to be won by men whose productions can appeal to those who are not artists. He was at once capable of the deepest affection and so thin-skinned that he would allow a slight to cancel a long-standing friendship. He had an abnormally keen eye for provocation. He was eager to propagate true ideas about art, but he resented their existence in anyone but himself. Speaking broadly, his ambition was to be acknowledged as a sort of æsthetic dictator. Nothing would have satisfied him short of being accepted as both the greatest painter and the official figurehead of art, in his time, while his character unfitted him to take even the initial steps towards such a consummation. As a painter, he lacked something on the sensuous side. He was fond of asserting the partial truth that art is science. In distilling from a natural scene such constituents as can be fused into a simple, sternly concentrated, æsthetic unity Whistler has never been surpassed. It is only when we seek the touch of excess, the hint at some personal, irresponsible preference, through which genius so often speaks, that we feel a slight stirring of disappointment. As an etcher he ranks with Rembrandt, in command of the métier, and in contentment with what it can do without any kind of forcing. As a man Whistler was one of the most remarkable social units of his time. His epigrammatic wit and power of repartee inspired a curious mixture of dread and admiration, which was deepened by the inability of the slower minds about him to foresee when they would tread upon his toes and bring out his lightning.
A memorial exhibition of Whistler's work was held by the International Society at Knightsbridge in 1905, and a loan collection was brought together at the Tate Gallery in the summer of 1912. Six of his finest pictures are in the art collection of Mr. Charles Lang Freer, of Detroit, which has been presented to the Smithsonian Institution at Washington.
Portraits of Whistler are numerous, from an early miniature reproduced in Mrs. Pennell's ‘Life,’ and a head painted when the sitter was fourteen by Sir William Boxall, to the various portraits of himself drawn and painted throughout his active years. At one time he is said to have made some sort of a portrait of himself every day. Most of these were destroyed by himself. Self-portraits in oil survive in the McCulloch collection, in the possession of Mr. Douglas Freshfield, and in the Municipal Art Gallery at Dublin; a drawing in black chalk belongs to Mr. Thomas Way, and there are three etchings. The portrait known as ‘Whistler with a large hat’ belongs to Mr. Freer, who also owns a portrait by Fantin-Latour which was cut out from a large group, the rest of which was destroyed. He was also painted by Boldini and by W. M. Chase. There is a lithograph by Paul Rajon, dry-points by Helleu and Percy Thomas, a caricature in ‘Vanity Fair’ by ‘Spy’ in 1878, and a bust by Sir Edgar Boehm, R.A.
[E. R. and J. Pennell's Life of James McNeill Whistler, London, 2 vols. 1908, and revised edit. in 1 vol., 1911, is the indispensable authority. See also T. R. Way and G. R. Dennis's The Art of James McNeill Whistler, 1903; T. R. Way's Cat. of Lithographs, 1905, and his Memoirs of Whistler, 1912; Graves' Roy. Acad. Exhibitors; Duret, Histoire de J. McNeill Whistler et son œuvre, 1904; Mortimer Menpes's Whistler as I knew him, 1904; Howard Mansfield's Cat., 1909; E. G. Kennedy, The Etched Work of Whistler, issued by Grolier Club of New York, 6 vols., 1910; The Times, 18 July 1903; Writings by and about Whistler, by Don C. Seitz, Edinburgh, 1910; private information and personal knowledge.]