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James Abbot McNeil Whistler was born on July 11, 1834, in the city of Lowell, Massachusetts. His father George Washington Whistler was a railroad engineer, and his brother, William McNeil Whistler, would become a Confederate surgeon.
In 1837 The Whistler family moved from Lowell to Stonington, Connecticut, and then to Springfield, where they would stay until 1842 when they left the United States. Young James moved with his family to St. Petersburg, where his father, under the summons of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia, would work at a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Later, the artist claimed his birthplace as being in Saint Petersburg, Russia, stating that he would choose when and where he was born, and that was not in Lowell.
In his youth, the young artist was often an insolent and temperamental child. His parents would soon notice that drawing helped Whistler to settle down and focus his attention. In Russia, the artist received private lessons before enrolling at the Imperial Academy of Arts when he was eleven years old. His studies were disrupted four years later when his father died of cholera, and the family was forced to return to the United States. By 1855, Whistler moved to Europe, never returning to the US again.
Now in Paris, the city proved to be a fertile ground where the artist could develop his artistic skills. At first, he briefly studied at the Ecole Imperiale before entering the studio of Charles Gabriel Gleyre. Whistler’s creative development started to truly blossom in 1858 when he befriended with Henri Fantin-Latour, who would later introduce him to the Realist painters Edouard Manet, Alphonse Legros, and Gustave Courbet, as well as the distinguished art critic Charles Baudelaire. Although the Realist movement was a significant influence on him, Whistler soon started to move towards a style movement called Aestheticism, which would favor the overall aesthetic results over social-political motifs.
The artist’s boldness extended beyond his brushstrokes. An adventurous person, Whistler sailed to Chile in 1866. Some scholars speculate the reasons for the said trip, suggesting that he was supportive of the Chilean army, which was in war with Sapin at the time, and he visited the country to encourage their efforts. There, Whistler created many nocturnal seascapes, which displayed a shift in the artist’s art style. Although he focused on nocturnal maritime scenes for the next ten years, Whistler never stopped his portrait production.
During the last period of his life, Whistler continued to produce portraits, also experimenting with lithography and color photography. In 1888, he married Beatrix Godwin, a former pupil of his. She was a respected woman who would assure the artist some commissions. She died of cancer in 1896. Later, Whistler founded his art school. However, the school would soon close due to Whistler’s fragile health.
James Abbott McNeil Whistler died on July 17, 1903.