James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was the first child born to George Washington Whistler, a prominent engineer, and Anna Matilda McNeill (his father's second wife). At the Ruskin trial (see below), Whistler claimed the more exotic St. Petersburg, Russia as his birthplace: "I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell," he declared. In later years, he would play up his mother's connection to Southern and Scottish roots, and present himself as an impoverished Southern aristocrat (although to what extent he truly sympathized with the Southern cause during the American Civil War remains unclear).
Young Whistler was a moody child prone to fits of temper and insolence, who after bouts of ill-health often drifted into periods of laziness. His parents discovered in his early youth that drawing often settled him down and helped focus his attention.
Beginning in 1842, his father was employed to work on a railroad in Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg to join his father a year later, the young Whistler took private art lessons, then enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts at age 11. The young artist followed the traditional curriculum of drawing from plaster casts and occasional live models, reveled in the atmosphere of art talk with older peers, and pleased his parents with a first-class mark in anatomy. In 1844, he met the noted Scottish artist Sir William Allan, who came to Russia with a commission to paint a history of the life of Peter the Great. Whistler's mother noted in her diary, "the great artist remarked to me 'Your little boy has uncommon genius, but do not urge him beyond his inclination.'"
In 1847-8, his family spent some time in London with relatives, while his father stayed in Russia. Whistler's brother-in-law Francis Haden, a physician who was also a talented artist, spurred his interest in art and photography. Haden took Whistler to visit collectors and to lectures, and gave him a watercolor set with instruction. Whistler was already imagining an art career. He began to collect books on art and he studied other artists' technique. When his portrait was painted by Sir William Boxall in 1848, the young Whistler exclaimed that the portrait was "very much like me and a very fine picture. Mr. Boxall is a beautiful colourist. It is a beautiful creamy surface, and looks so rich." In his blossoming enthusiasm for art, at fifteen, he informed his father by letter of his future direction, "I hope, dear father, you will not object to my choice." His father, however, died from cholera at the age of forty-nine, and the Whistler family moved back to his mother's hometown of Pomfret, Connecticut. His art plans remained vague and his future uncertain. The family lived frugally and managed to get by on a limited income. His cousin reported that Whistler at that time was "slight, with a pensive, delicate face, shaded by soft brown curls... he had a somewhat foreign appearance and manner, which, aided by natural abilities, made him very charming, even at that age."
Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855, rented a studio in the Latin Quarter, and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. Soon, he had a French girlfriend, a dressmaker named Heloise. He studied traditional art methods for a short time at the Ecole Imperiale and at the atelier of Charles Gabriel Gleyre. The latter was a great advocate of the work of Ingres, and impressed Whistler with two principles that he used for the rest of his career: line is more important than color and that black is the fundamental color of tonal harmony. Twenty years later, the Impressionists would largely overthrow this philosophy, banning black and brown as "forbidden colors" and emphasizing color over form.
Whistler preferred self-study (including copying at the Louvre) and enjoying the cafe life. While letters from home reported his mother's efforts at economy, Whistler spent freely, sold little or nothing in his first year in Paris, and was in steady debt. To relieve the situation, he took to painting and selling copies he made at the Louvre and finally moved to cheaper quarters. As luck would have it, the arrival in Paris of George Lucas, another rich friend, helped stabilize Whistler's finances for awhile. In spite of a financial respite, the winter of 1857 was a difficult one for Whistler. His poor health, made worse by excessive smoking and drinking, laid him low.
Reflecting the banner of realism of his adopted circle, Whistler painted his first exhibited work, La Mere Gerard in 1858. He followed it by painting At the Piano in 1859 in London, which he adopted as his home, while also regularly visiting friends in France. At the Piano is a portrait done of his niece and her mother in their London music room, an effort which clearly displayed his talent and promise. A critic wrote, "[despite] a recklessly bold manner and sketchiness of the wildest and roughest kind, a genuine feeling for colour and a splendid power of composition and design, which evince a just appreciation of nature very rare amongst artists." The work is unsentimental and effectively contrasts the mother in black and the daughter in white, with other colors kept restrained in the manner advised by his teacher Gleyre. It was displayed at the Royal Academy the following year, and in many exhibits to come.
In a second painting done in the same room, Whistler demonstrated his natural inclination toward innovation and novelty by fashioning a genre scene with unusual composition and foreshortening. It was later re-titled Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room. This painting also demonstrated Whistler's ongoing work pattern, especially with portraits: a quick start, major adjustments, a period of neglect, then a final flurry to the finish. After a year in London, as counterpoint to his 1858 French set, in 1860, he produced another set of etchings called Thames Set, as well as some early impressionistic work, including The Thames in Ice. At this stage, he was beginning to establish his technique of tonal harmony based on a limited, pre-determined palette.
In 1861, after returning to Paris for a time, Whistler painted his first famous work, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. The portrait of his mistress and business manager Joanna Hiffernan was created as a simple study in white; however, others saw it differently. The critic Jules Castagnary thought the painting an allegory of a new bride's lost innocence. The portrait was refused for exhibition at the conservative Royal Academy but in 1863 it was accepted at the Salon des Refuses in Paris, an event sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III for the exhibition of works rejected from the Salon.
Whistler painted another portrait of Hiffernan in white, this time displaying his new found interest in Asian motifs, which he titled The Little White Girl. His Lady of the Land Lijsen and The Golden Screen, both completed in 1864, again portray his mistress, in even more emphatic Asian dress and surroundings. During this period Whistler became close to Courbet, the early leader of the French realist school, but when Hiffernan modeled in the nude for Courbet, Whistler became enraged and his relationship with Hiffernan began to fall apart. In January 1864, Whistler's very religious and very proper mother arrived in London, upsetting her son's bohemian existence and temporarily exacerbating family tensions. As he wrote to Henri Fantin-Latour, "General upheaval!! I had to empty my house and purify it from cellar to eaves." He also immediately moved Hiffernan to another location
In 1866, Whistler decided to visit Valparaiso, Chile, a journey that has puzzled scholars, though Whistler stated that he did it for political reasons. Chile was at war with Spain and perhaps Whistler thought it a heroic struggle of a small nation against a larger one, but no evidence supports that theory. What the journey did produce was Whistler's first three nocturnal paintings-which he termed "moonlights" and later re-titled as "nocturnes"-night scenes of the harbor painted with a blue or light green palette. After he returned to London, he painted several more nocturnes over the next ten years, many of the Thames River and of Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure park famous for its frequent fireworks displays, which presented a novel challenge to paint. In his maritime nocturnes, Whistler used highly thinned paint as a ground with lightly flicked color to suggest ships, lights, and shore line. Some of the Thames paintings also show compositional and thematic similarities with the Japanese prints of Hiroshige. In 1872, Whistler credited his patron Frederick Leyland, an amateur musician devoted to Chopin, for the musically-inspired titles.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 fragmented the French art community. Many artists took refuge in England joining Whistler, including Pissarro and Monet, while Manet and Degas stayed in France. Like Whistler, Monet and Pissarro both focused their efforts on views of the city, and it is likely that Whistler was exposed to the evolution of Impressionism founded by these artists and that they had seen his nocturnes. Whistler was drifting away from Courbet's "damned realism" and their friendship had wilted, as had his liaison with Jo.
By 1871, Whistler returned to portraits and soon produced his most famous painting, the nearly monochromatic full-length figure titled Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, but usually referred to as Whistler's Mother. According to a letter from his mother, one day after a model failed to appear, Whistler turned to his mother and suggested he do her portrait. In his typically slow and experimental way, at first he had her stand but that proved too tiring so the famous profile pose was adopted. It took dozens of sittings to complete.
The painting narrowly escaped being burnt in a fire aboard a train during shipping. Later the painting was purchased by the French government, the first Whistler work in a public collection, and is now housed in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.
After the trial, Whistler received a commission to do twelve etchings in Venice. He eagerly accepted the assignment, and with girlfriend Maud arrived in the city, taking rooms in a dilapidated palazzo they shared with other artists, including John Singer Sargent. Though homesick for London, he adapted to Venice and set about discovering its character. He did his best to distract himself from the gloom of his financial affairs and the pending sale of all his goods at Sotheby's. He was a regular guest at parties at the American consulate, and with his usual wit, enchanted the guests with verbal flourishes such as "the artist's only positive virtue is idleness-and there are so few who are gifted at it."
Back in London, the pastels sold particularly well and he quipped, "They are not as good as I supposed. They are selling!" He was actively engaged in exhibiting his other work but with limited success. Though still struggling financially, however, he was heartened by the attention and admiration he received from the young generation of English and American painters who made him their idol and eagerly adopted the title of "pupil of Whistler". Many of them returned to America and spread tales of Whistler's provocative egotism, sharp wit, and aesthetic pronouncements-establishing the legend of Whistler, much to his great satisfaction.
In 1890, he met Charles Lang Freer, who became a valuable patron in America, and ultimately, his most important collector. Around this time, in addition to portraiture, Whistler experimented with early color photography and with lithography, creating a series featuring London architecture and the human figure, mostly female nudes. In 1891, with help from his close friend Stephane Mallarme, Whistler's Mother was purchased by the French government for 4,000 francs. This was much less than what an American collector might have paid, but that would not have been as prestigious by Whistler's reckoning.
After an indifferent reception to his one-man show in London, featuring mostly his nocturnes, Whistler abruptly decided he had had enough of London. He and Trixie moved to Paris in 1892. He felt welcomed by Monet, Auguste Rodin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and by Stephane Mallarme and he set himself up a large studio. He was at the top of his career when it was discovered that Trixie had incurable cancer. She died in 1896.
In the final seven years of his life, Whistler did some minimalist seascapes in watercolor and a final self-portrait in oil. He corresponded with his many friends and colleagues. Whistler founded an art school in 1898, but his poor health and infrequent appearances led to its closure in 1901. He died in London on July 17, 1903.
Whistler was the subject of a contemporaneous biography by his friend, the printmaker Joseph Pennell who collaborated with his wife Elizabeth Robins Pennell to write The Life of James McNeill Whistler, published in 1908. The Pennells' vast collection of Whistler material was bequeathed to the Library of Congress. The artist's entire estate was left to his sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip. She spent her life defending his reputation and managing his art and effects, much of which was eventually donated to Glasgow University.