James Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts to Anna McNeill and George Washington Whistler. He was described as insolent, with a tendency to fits, having spats of illness and being lazy. The only thing that calmed him was drawing. His mother, of the McNeill’s of Scotland who sided with Charles Stuart in 1746 and fled to North Carolina, was the subject of Whistler’s iconic portrait. His father, George Washington Whistler, a West Point graduate and a highly respected railroad engineer, was responsible for several major railroad and canal innovations. He designed the first steam locomotive built in New England, and he was the first to add whistles. Among many supervisory positions with several American railroad and canal companies, he supervised laying the first passenger railway track in America for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
In 1843, Czar Nicholas I of Russia made George Whistler the supervising engineer for the St Petersburg to Moscow railroad. The family moved to St. Petersburg, where James took art lessons at the Imperial Academy of Arts. The Whistler’s, all but George, went to London to visit family in1848. Whistler’s father and his uncle in London encouraged James’s talent. In 1849, at the age of fifteen, James wrote to his father in Russia, “I hope, dear father, you will not object to my choice.” He had decided art was his calling. Unfortunately his father died of cholera in April 1849, before having time to answer his son’s letter.
The family moved back to American. His mother wanted James to pursue the ministry; instead he enrolled in West Point. Not a success, he was expelled with too many demerits and later said, “If silicon had been a gas, I would have been a general.” He lived briefly in Baltimore where he set up a studio, but left for Paris in1855. Whistler chose a Bohemian lifestyle and met the major artists of the time, including those soon to be known as Impressionists. He cultivated the persona and image of a dandy. “Early in life I made the discovery that I was charming, and if one is delightful, one has to thrust the world away to keep from being bored to death.” Degas said of Whistler, “If you were not a genius, you would be the most ridiculous man in Paris.” As part of his unique persona Whistler signed his works with a butterfly, a device he designed to emulate the chop signatures of Japanese printmakers, whom he greatly admired.
Whistler apparently knew himself well. He was acquainted with and admired the Impressionists, but went his own way. He was very literate and wrote often about his life and his work. He was ostentatious, contentious and controversial, and this often got him into serious trouble. From the beginning his art was criticized. “Symphony in White No. 1 (1862) in the National Gallery of Art, was rejected from the official French Academy, but was included in the famous 1863 Salon de Refuse, where Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” was the great scandal. Having been rejected again by the French critics and Academy, Whistler returned to London where he lived with his mother. He moved between London and Paris for the remainder of his life.
He began painting his nocturnes in 1866. Whistler thought of painting as ‘’Art for Art’s Sake,’’ a theory that was developing at the time. Artists did not have to duplicate objects in nature but should express their personal and emotional response to it, much in the way music does. He was good friends with the composer Debussy and the poet, Mallarme. He wrote, “Nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements that the results may be beautiful – as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.” The nocturnes were moonlight paintings, rarely attempted by any artists. His friend and patron, Frederick Leyland, suggested the term nocturne, and Whistler thanked him for it. “It does poetically say all I want to say and no more than I wish.”
“Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Fire Wheel” (1875) was Whistler’s impression of the famous Cremone Garden’s during one of their nightly fireworks displays. Cremone Garden was an extremely popular pleasure garden for fashionable people offering restaurants, entertainment, balloon ascents, dancing and an indoor bowling alley. Patrons entered by taking a boat on the Thames to Cremone Pier or through the north gate on Kings’ Road. The iron work gate was enriched with garnet and cut-glass drops, luster circles and gas jets. The main pavilion was 360 feet in circumference and encrusted with gas jets and more than forty plate glass mirrors in black frames. The pagoda for the orchestra was adorned with seventeen gas lit chandeliers. Whistler lived and worked in Chelsea, and could look down from his balcony at this scene.
Whistler painted six nocturnes of Cremone Garden. The nightly fireworks display was held in the Gypsy Grotto. “The Fire Wheel”, was named after Saint Catherine. It took him a long time to develop a technique for the nocturnes. His paintings were meticulous, and he often viewed his work reflected in a mirror to check details. He developed a specific oil solution for the nocturnes, thinning it with copal, turpentine and linseed oil, until it reached a thin state to paint quickly in transparent layers. He called it a sauce. He wiped the layers as needed and perfected a spatter and drip technique to create the sparkle of fireworks. Whistler strove to create nuanced, intimate moments. Depicting a detailed reality was never his goal. As he stated “If reality is the goal the king of artists would be the photographer.”
“Nocturne in Black and Gold, Falling Rockets” (1875) was exhibited in 1877 at the Grosvernor Gallery, an alternative to the Royal Academy exhibitions. The well respected art critic, John Ruskin, wrote a scathing review. The “gallerist ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a port of paint in the public’s face.”
Fireworks indeed! Whistler had a writ for libel served on Ruskin hoping to be awarded 1000 pounds and costs from the jury for the libel. It took a year for the case to come to court at the Old Bailey, as a result of Ruskin having suffered bouts of mental illness. The case was heard on November 25 and 26, 1878. Unfortunately the 24 by 18 inch painting was first hung upside down at the trial. Whistler was asked “Did it take much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold. How soon did you knock it off?” Whistler replied, “Oh, I ‘knocked it off’ possibly in a couple of days – one day to do the work and another to finish it…” Next questions “The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?” Whistler: “No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.” Testimony was rendered on both sides of the issue; in the end, the court decided Whistler was correct, and Ruskin’s article was libelous. However, in determining the value of the libel to Whistler’s reputation, the damages awarded to him was one farthing, and he was to pay his own court costs. Ruskin’s friends paid his costs, but Whistler was ruined. He even had to sell his house.
Those who have visited Whistler’s “Peacock Room” at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., may remember it was commissioned by the same earlier mentioned Frederick Leyland for his house in London. It was the cause of another famous Whistler controversy. Fortunately Whistler survived them both and continued his career. In 1879, he was commissioned by the Fine Art Society of London to make a series of Venetian prints. These and his later works were a success, and his earlier highly criticized work began to be appreciated and accepted. In 1885, he delivered his famous Ten O’clock Lectures at Prince’s Hall in London and then at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1890, he published Whistler vs Ruskin: Art and Art Critics, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, and in 1891, with the help of the poet Mallarme, the French government purchased “Whistler’s Mother”. It was the first work by an American artist purchased by the French Government.
Today Whistler is considered a major artist responsible for helping to re-shape the art world and bringing it forward into the Twentieth Century. Whistler’s cousin and friend, Ralph Curtis, an American painting in Venice summed up Whistler in a most appropriate manner: He “concedes nothing…his attitude of art, to himself, to the public, and to his rivals, past and living, never changed. Applauded or booed, he ever remained with same high aesthetic ideals, and the same shrewd eye to business…ultra-exclusive aristocrat…few did he design to recognize as “brothers”.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.