James Whistler was one of the most remarkable and innovative artists in American history—renowned as a fine portrait painter and an unparalleled etcher, who incongruously assimilated the distinctive features of East and West, made innumerable technical innovations, and championed the wedding of modern artistic innovations with the craftsmanship and techniques of the classical Christian tradition.
He was born on July 10, 1834, in Lowell, Massachusetts and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1851. He did not do well in his studies however, and was forced to leave the Academy in 1854 to take a job as a draftsman with the government’s Coastal Survey Corps. One year later, on this day, he went to Paris, where he became a pupil of the Swiss classicist painter Charles Gabriel Gleyre. Formal instruction influenced him less, however, than his acquaintance with the French realist painter Gustave Courbet and his own study of the great masters. It was also in Paris that he became fascinated with traditional Chinese and Japanese styles.
Whistler won recognition as an etcher when his first series of etchings, Twelve Etchings from Nature—commonly called The French Set—appeared in 1858. Soon after he moved to London, where his paintings, which had been repeatedly rejected by the galleries of Paris, found ready acceptance and acclaim. At the Piano was shown by the Royal Academy of London in 1860. Thereafter exhibitions of his work aroused increasing international interest, as did his flamboyantly eccentric personality.
Three of Whistler's best-known portraits, Arrangement in Black and Grey No. 1: The Artist's Mother—the official title of that famous painting best known simply as Whistler’s Mother— as well as Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Thomas Carlyle and Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander were all painted during a very productive period of his life around 1872.
In 1877 he exhibited a number of landscapes done in the Japanese manner; these paintings, which he called Nocturnes, outraged conservative art opinion, which did not understand his deliberate avoidance of what he called “narrative detail.” The famous traditionalist art critic John Ruskin wrote a caustic article, and Whistler, charging slander, sued Ruskin for damages. He won the case, one of the most celebrated of its kind, but the expense of the trial forced him into bankruptcy. Selling the contents of his studio, Whistler left England, worked intensively from 1879 to 1880 in Venice, then returned to England and resumed his attack on the academic art tradition.
In his later years Whistler devoted himself increasingly to etching, drypoint, lithography, and interior decoration—he was one of the first serious artists to turn to what he called “decorative architecture” to express his Christian worldview in “tangible, livable forms.” The Peacock Room, which he painted for a private London residence was the most noteworthy example of his interior decoration, but he actually worked extensively in the field arguing that “to live in art is a far more Biblical notion than to merely pander to the critics and collecting classes.” And so, until his death in 1903, that was his preferred medium.