US painter and etcher. Active in London from 1859, he was a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement. Influenced by Japanese prints, he painted riverscapes and portraits that show subtle composition and colour harmonies, for example Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (1871; Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
He settled in Chelsea, London, and painted views of the Thames including Old Battersea Bridge (about 1872–75; Tate Gallery, London). In 1877 the art critic John Ruskin published an article on his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (Detroit Institute of Arts) which led to a trial in which Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, claiming £1,000; he was awarded symbolic damages of a farthing (a quarter of an old penny). Whistler described the trial in his book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890).
Determined to avoid the sentimental storytelling that dominated Victorian painting, he sought an art that was concerned solely with aesthetic qualities. The delicacy of his work is best seen in his etchings, lithographs, pastels, and watercolours. His ‘Peacock Room’ (1876–77) for the London home of a Liverpool shipping magnate was an original departure in interior decoration (reconstruction in Freer Gallery, Washington DC) .
Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. He originally attended West Point Military Academy, but left after failing a course and worked as a draftsman. In 1855 he went to Paris where he entered the studio of Charles Gleyre (1808–1874). He was greatly influenced by the newly discovered Japanese colour prints and the work of the realist Gustave Courbet, as well as by the Impressionists' techniques.
Whistler, James Abbott McNeill
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