Monday, August 3, 2009

THE GUY WHO PAINTED HIS MOTHER



Portrait of Whistler with Hat (1858)
Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Arrangement in Gray
Portrait of the Painter, Year ca. 1872
Oil on canvas
Dimensions 29½ x 21 in
Detroit Institute of Arts Detroit, Michigan, USA
Source dia.org
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


James Abbott was aged nine when his family moved to Russia, and he spent several of his childhood years there, studying drawing at the Imperial Academy of Science.
He soon became an inveterate traveller. In 1848 he went to live with his sister and her husband in London, and after his father's death the following year the family returned to the United States and settled in Pomfret, Connecticut. Whistler enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1851, where he excelled in Robert W. Weir's drawing class. He was dismissed from the academy in 1854 for "deficiency in chemistry", and after brief periods working for the Winans Locomotive Works in Baltimore, and the drawings division of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (he learnt etching as a US navy cartographer), resolved to become an artist and moved to Europe permanently in 1855.
Whistler settled in Paris first, where he studied at the Ecole Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin, before entering the Académie Gleyre. He made copies in the Louvre, acquired a lasting admiration for Velázquez, and became a devotee of the cult of the Japanese print and oriental art and decoration in general. Through his friend Fantin-Latour he met Courbet, whose Realism inspired much of his early work. The circles in which he moved can be gauged from Fantin-Latour's Homage to Delacroix, in which Whistler is portrayed alongside Baudelaire, Manet, and others. He quickly associated himself with avant garde artists, and was influenced by Courbet's realism, as well as the seventeenth century Dutch and Spanish schools. With Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros, he founded the Société des Trois.
(Web Muzium Paris © 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch)


At the Piano
Oil on canvas, 1858-1859
26 3/8 x 35 5/8 inches
The Taft Museum, Cincinnati
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center


"At the Piano", Whistler's first major work, reflects the bourgeois environment in which he was raised. Yet the standard subject matter of the drawing room piano is dynamized by the composition. Whistler consciously imitated the optical effect provided by the stereoscopes popular during his day. Note the two definitively separate focal points of mother and daughter; it is impossible to focus on both simultaneously. The shallow pictorial depth pulls the viewer into the canvas, which exaggerates this stereoptical effect. It feels almost as if you were holding a book so close to your face that you can't read the words. Compositionally, Whistler keeps the picture from flying apart by the use of strong verticals and horizontals in the picture frames and dado. Even in this early work, Whistler has achieved an intimacy between the formal structure and the subject. In most pictures of this genre, the subjects are seated side-by-side happily sharing a musical experience. In "At the Piano", mother and daughter are separated by an impassable abyss caused by Whistler's dual focal points. The impression is one of estrangement and isolation. When we learn that mother and daughter are dressed in mourning (white being the appropriate mourning attire for a Victorian child), we can appreciate how Whistler utilized a novel compositional concept to express and accentuate the gravity of his subject matter.
(Mark Harden at glyphs.com)
After Whistler's At The Piano (Taft Museum, Cincinnati) was rejected at the Salon of 1859 he moved to London, but often returned to France. At the Piano was well received at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1860 and he soon made a name for himself, not just because of his talent, but also on account of his flamboyant personality. He was famous for his wit and dandyism, and loved controversy. His life-style was lavish and he was often in debt. He began work on a series of etchings. There Whistler was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, and he befriended Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oscar Wilde was also among his famous friends.
Whistler greatly admired Dutch masters such as Jan Steen, Rembrandt and Ruysdael. In 1858 he visited Holland to view the Nightwatch. Indeed, he became a frequent traveller to the Netherlands, visiting The Hague, Dordrecht and Domburg and producing numerous etchings of one of his favorite cities: Amsterdam.
(Web Muzium Paris © 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch)


Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl
Oil on canvas, 1862
84 3/8 x 42 1/2 inches
National Gallery of Art, Washington
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center


Early in his career, James McNeill Whistler submitted Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl to two esteemed annual European exhibitions—the Royal Academy in London, England, and the Paris Salon in France. The painting was rejected at both. It was shown in a less notable exhibition in 1863 and received tentative reviews. While the painting’s white tones and the lily held by the woman imply purity, her morning dress and disheveled hair suggest impropriety. This ambiguity baffled the European critics and public: “Folk nudged each other and went almost into hysterics; there was always a grinning group in front of [The White Girl].”—Emile Zola, novelist, 1886; “It is one of the most incomplete paintings we have ever met with. A woman, in a quaint morning dress of white, with her hair about her shoulders, stands alone, in the background of nothing in particular.”—F.G. Stevens, critic, June, 1862.
Critics tried to create a story behind the painting’s subject, inventing various
interpretations. They called the model a “sleepwalker," "a newly deflowered bride," and an "apparition.” Whistler left no clues as to how the painting should be read. He said, “My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain.” The real “story” was Whistler’s manifestation of art for art’s sake—his focus on color, line and composition—not the subject matter of the painting.
When the painting was shown in the United States 10 years later, the public generally reacted differently. The model was described as “attractive and even fascinating” with a “singular and an indescribable face, full of the strangest and subtlest expression.” American artists soon imitated the work, creating their own paintings in the manner of Whistler’s White Girl.
(© 2007 The Detroit Institute of Arts)
Thereafter Courbet's influence waned, and Orientalism--and to a lesser extent classicism--became increasingly pronounced elements in his work. Whistler maintained close ties with France during the London years, and painted at Trouville with Courbet, Daubigny, and Monet in 1865.
In 1866 he went to South America, where he painted seascapes in Valparaiso, Chile. After returning to Europe he commenced work on a series of monumental figure compositions called the Six Projects (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), that reflect the influence of the English artist Albert Moore. In 1869 Whistler began to sign his paintings with a butterfly monogram composed of his initials. In 1872 he painted his well-known Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, that was later acquired by the French government.
(Web Muzium Paris © 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch)


Butterfly signature of James McNeill Whistler
©2008 Princeton University Library


Arrangement in Grey and Black
Portrait of the Painter's Mother
Oil on canvas, 1871
56 3/4 x 63 7/8 inches (144.3 x 162.4 cm)
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
The Artchive .com


This is 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 austere portrait in his normally constrained palette is another Whistler exercise in tonal harmony and composition. The deceptively simple design is in fact a balancing act of differing shapes, particularly rectangles of the curtain, picture on the wall, wall and floor which stabilize the curve of her face, dress, and chair. Again, though his mother is the subject, Whistler commented that the narrative was of little importance. In reality, however, it was a homage to his pious mother. After the initial shock of her moving in with her son, she aided him considerably by stabilizing his behavior somewhat, tending to his domestic needs, and providing an aura of conservative respectability that helped win over patrons.
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)


Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
Oil on canvas, 1875
23 5/8 x 18 1/4 inches
Detroit Institute of Art
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center


The firework rocket Whistler used in the background of "Battersea Bridge" becomes the focal point of "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket". This work reaches to the very edge of abstraction, yet again maintains a representational basis. It depicts the Cremorne fireworks platform in London where shows were put on nightly. In the center, a bright explosion climaxes the display. Clouds of black and dark blue represent the smoke of the rockets. To the left, a large tree looms in the darkness, while three wispy figures admire the display from the foreground. The forceful composition evokes the actual trail of the firework explosion. Initially, the eye is attracted to the large plane of color near the bottom. The central explosion carries the eye of the viewer upward along with the shower of sparks to the large drops of paint at the top center of the canvas. Then, as anticlimax, the shower of sparks on the right float silently back into the dark of the night.
(Mark Harden at glyphs.com)

Harmony in Blue and Gold
The Peacock Room, 1876–1877 (two views)
Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood
Freer Gallery of Art
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
©2009 About.com,


Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room is Whistler's masterpiece of interior decorative mural art. He painted the paneled room in a rich and unified palette of brilliant blue-greens with over-glazing and metallic gold leaf. Painted in 1876-1877, it is now considered a high example of the Anglo-Japanese style.
Unhappy with the first decorative result by another artist, Leyland left the room in Whistler’s care to make minor changes, “to harmonize” the room whose primary purpose was to display Leyland’s china collection. However, Whistler let his imagination run wild, “Well, you know, I just painted on. I went on—without design or sketch—putting in every touch with such freedom…And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy of it.”
Upon returning, Leyland was shocked by the “improvements”. Artist and patron quarreled so violently over the room and the proper compensation for the work that the important relationship for Whistler was terminated. At one point, Whistler gained access to Leyland's home and painted two fighting peacocks meant to represent the artist and his patron; one holds a paint brush and the other holds a bag of money.
Whistler is reported to have said to Leyland, “Ah, I have made you famous. My work will live when you are forgotten. Still, per chance, in the dim ages to come you will be remembered as the proprietor of the Peacock Room.”
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
In 1877 the critic John Ruskin denounced Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875; Detroit Institute of Arts), accusing him of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face", and Whistler sued him for libel the following year. He won the action, but the awarding of only a farthing's damages with no costs was in effect a justification for Ruskin. Potential patrons were repelled by the negative publicity surrounding the case, and the expense of the trial led to Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879. His house was sold and he proceeded to Italy with a commission from the Fine Arts Society to make twelve etchings of Venice. He spent a year in Venice (1879-80), concentrating on the etchings-- among the masterpieces of 19th-century graphic art-- that helped to restore his fortunes when he returned to London.
After returning to England in 1880 he painted a wide variety of subjects, continued with his interest in the graphic arts, and promulgated his aesthetic theories in print and in the Ten O'Clock lecture (1885); his polemical The Gentle Art of Making Enemies was published in 1890. In 1886 he was elected president of the Society of British Artists, but despite some successes his revolutionary ideas ran afoul of the conservative members, and he was voted out of office within two years.
During the late 1880s and 1890s Whistler achieved recognition as an artist of international stature. His paintings were acquired by public collections, he received awards at exhibitions, and he was elected to such prestigious professional associations as the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Munich. His portrait of Thomas Carlyle was bought by the Corporation of Glasgow in 1891 for 1,000 guineas and soon afterwards his most famous work, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (1871), was bought by the French state (it is now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and he was made a member of the Légion d'Honneur. In 1898 he was elected president of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers.
(Web Muzium Paris © 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch)


Arrangement in Gray and Black No.2
Portrait of Thomas Carlyle
Oil on canvas, 1872-1873
67 1/4 x 56 3/8 inches
Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center


Painter, draughtsman, decorator, and writer, James McNeill Whistler claimed multiple allegiances and crossed many boundaries in both his life and art. Born in America and raised in Russia, Whistler spent his adult life as an artist in three of Europe’s greatest cities: Paris, London, and Venice. His cosmopolitan lifestyle brought him into contact with artists working in a range of styles, from realism to aestheticism, impressionism to classicism. Neither a follower nor a leader, from the start Whistler was intent on forging his own aesthetic philosophy, which he would articulate through his images and writings. While his artistic achievements have been hotly debated, from his earliest student days until the present, one aspect of his oeuvre has brought him near-consistent acclaim: his prints. Adedicated printmaker, he produced over six hundred etchings, drypoints, and lithographs, the best known of which are those he published in sets. The rustic charm of the French Set, the gritty realism of the Thames Set, and the decorative aestheticism of the First and Second Venice Sets document the evolution of Whistler’s art and his approach toward printmaking. Ever conscious of his need to support himself and his ambition to engage an audience, Whistler was drawn to printmaking, taking advantage of the medium’s inherent multiplicity. (Nicole Simpson & Elizabeth Wyckoff, Print Specialists, © The new York Public Library)


The doorway 1879-80
Twelve Etchings (First Venice Set) 1880
Venice / Italy
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching, drypoint and roulette
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


Unconventional compositional devices, such as high horizon lines, are a feature of many of the prints Whistler made in Venice. This is his own description of his drawing method there:
"I began first of all by seizing upon the chief point of interest. Perhaps it might have been the extreme distance – the little palaces and the shipping beneath the bridge. If so I would begin drawing that distance in elaborately, and then would expand from it until I came to the bridge, which I would draw in one broad sweep. In this way the picture must necessarily be a perfect thing from start to finish."
Whistler also sought great variation in his etching technique, sometimes leaving a plate covered in a thin film of ink rather than just retained in the etched lines, He aimed for results that came to be described as ‘artistic printing’ – characterised by uneven inking, nuance and painterly qualities.
Whistler’s scenes of Venice were criticised at the time because of his adoption of ‘picturesque’ compositions that included details of everyday habitation and signs of decay. Yet these images were to become the adopted interpretation of the next generation of artists – including the French Impressionists, Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet – who sought to capture the essence of a city, its cityscapes and river views.
(© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra)


Doorway and vine 1879-80
A Set of Twenty- Six Etchings (Second Venice Set) 1886
Venice / Italy
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


San Biagio 1879-80
A Set of Twenty- Six Etchings (Second Venice Set) 1886
Venice / Italy
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching and drypoint
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


The balcony ['The Balcony'] 1879-80
A Set of Twenty- Six Etchings (Second Venice Set) 1886
Venice / Italy
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


Two doorways 1879-80
Twelve Etchings (First Venice Set) 1880
Venice / Italy
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching and drypoint
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


The Traghetto, no.2 1879-80
Twelve Etchings (First Venice Set) 1880
Venice / Italy
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching and drypoint
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


The palaces 1879
Twelve Etchings (First Venice Set) 1880
Venice / Italy
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching and drypoint
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


Wheelwright 1879-80
A Set of Twenty- Six Etchings (Second Venice Set) 1886
London / Greater London / England
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching and drypoint
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


The unsafe tenement [L' habitation dangereuse] 1858
Douze eaux-fortes d'après nature
[Twelve etchings after nature] (French set) 1858
Alsace / France
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


La vieille aux loques (The old rag-seller) 1858
Douze eaux-fortes d'après nature
[Twelve etchings after nature] (French set) 1858
Paris / Ile-de-France / France
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


The pool 1859
A Series of Sixteen Etchings
Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects
(Thames Set) 1871
London / Greater London / England
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


Thames police [Wapping Wharf] 1859
A Series of Sixteen Etchings
Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects
(Thames Set) 1871
London / Greater London / England
Print, intaglio
Technique: etching with drypoint
© 2009 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the first American to achieve international prominence as an artist, died at the age of 69 in London on July 17, 1903. Barely a dozen mourners attended the graveside service—by that time, scarcely any of those he called his "close enemies" survived. In this country, where we usually jump at an excuse to trumpet one of our own, few noted the centenary of his death. There were no overarching retrospectives; no major reassessments.
And for Americans, Whistler remains a cipher, emerging from the smog of the past as indistinctly as a boat on the Thames in one of his nocturnes. The problem is twofold: Whistler barely lived in his homeland, and he is remembered more for his prancing ways than for his work. Having been raised largely in Russia, he resided in the United States for only about six years, leaving at age 20 to study and live in Europe. He "chose" not to have been born in Lowell, Mass., and as an expatriate in London and Paris he posed as a Southerner. He was an export product.
American viewers generally don't rush out to exhibitions of prints, yet it was in Whistler's etchings—pioneering works of Realism—that he displayed his cold-eyed, masculine side. One could have seen virtually his entire graphic output in two shows in 2003: "Poetry of Sight," at the New York Public Library, offered the full spectrum of his etchings, from the hard realism of the early years through the deliquescent late works; while "Whistler and His Circle in Venice," at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, concentrated on his sojourn in Italy and his influence on such notable American artists as John Singer Sargent and Alfred Stieglitz.
Whistler wasn't just a Realist or, as some have claimed, a tonal painter; and he wasn't merely a society portraitist or a designer or decorator. Americans have always been most at ease with single-image artists, those with a signature style (again, one thinks of Pollock's drips, Warhol's Marilyns). Whistler was all over the place, literally and metaphorically. Had we paid him more attention, we probably would have turned him into the guy who painted his mother.
(Daniel Kunitz at slate.com © 2009 Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC)

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