Interpretive Resource

Artist Biography: James McNeill Whistler

A concise biography about Whistler's life and work.

National Gallery of Art. Micro Gallery—National Gallery of Art. Online Content. Washington, D.C., 2004.

James McNeill Whistler
American, 1834-1903
Whistler's modernist paintings and his flamboyant, outspoken personality often provoked hostile reactions from conservative critics and a broad section of the public. Edgar Degas told him, "Whistler, if you were not a genius you would be the most ridiculous man in Paris." In another incident in which a lady had praised him as one of the two greatest painters (along with Velázquez), he replied, "Why drag in Velázquez?"

Whistler painted portraits, seascapes, and riverscapes, was an accomplished printmaker, and experimented with interior design. He is known for incorporating Japanese art and composition into his modernist, tonal style.

Whistler received his earliest artistic training in Russia, where his father worked as an engineer. In 1851 he enrolled in West Point, where he excelled in drawing, but was dismissed for failing chemistry. In 1855 he entered the Paris studio of Charles Gleyre, a landscape painter who later instructed many of the impressionists.

In 1859 Whistler settled in London, where his works aroused great interest ranging from praise to rejection by the Royal Academy of Arts' exhibition in 1862. He became progressively estranged from the British art establishment and brought a lawsuit in 1877 against the art critic John Ruskin, whom Whistler accused of slander. Whistler won the suit but was awarded only a symbolic farthing (a coin then worth one fourth of a penny); the legal fees contributed to his subsequent bankruptcy.

He accepted a commission to go to Venice and in the early 1880s began to reestablish his reputation by exhibiting his Venetian pastels and etchings. By the 1890s Whistler's work was internationally acclaimed.

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