Interpretive Resource

Introduction: Whistler's Self Portrait

An introduction to Whistler's delicate self-portrait.

Art Institute of Chicago. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in The Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 28.

In this delicate and revealing self-portrait, James McNeill Whistler displayed his creative concerns while asserting his place in the history of art. He originally intended to make a monumental, ten-foot-high painting that would, in its size and subject, refer to Diego Velázquez’s famous studio scene, Las Meninas(1656; Madrid, Museo del Prado). It would also, as Whistler explained to his friend the painter Henri Fantin-Latour, be "an apotheosis of everything that could scandalize the Academicians." The Artist in His Studio may represent a preliminary idea for the never-realized, larger project.

Because Whistler earned a significant portion of his income by filling portrait commissions, he maintained an elegant studio where his sitters could pose. This setting is evoked here, in an imaginative rather than literal manner. Although we cannot observe the canvas on which Whistler is working, we see a framed mirror and an etching hanging on the wall behind him, and, at the left, his collection of blue-and-white porcelain displayed on shelves. The costume, fan, and graceful posture of the standing woman attest to the painter’s interest in Asian art; this model converses with Whistler’s mistress Joanna Hiffernan, who is seated casually on a chaise lounge. Hiffernan’s dress is similar to the one she wears in Whistler’s painting The White Girl: Symphony in White, No. 1 (1862; Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art), shown in 1863 at the controversial Salon des refusés (Salon of Rejected Works) in Paris.

Whistler lent a certain immediacy and spontaneity to this intimate scene through his thin, gestural application of paint; yet he refrained from encumbering it with the narrative or allegorical elements favored by conservative critics. Rather, he made a commentary on his self-image as an artist inspired by muses of his own choosing.

portraits, women, work


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