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James Abbott McNeill Whistler


Whistler’s (1834–1903) subtle and restrained work seems very different from his energetic personality, sometimes even described as aggressive. Yet his ideas about art were radical. He believed a work of art should exist solely for art’s sake and appeal only to the viewer’s artistic sense. In painting, links with music and poetry were more important than content or subject.

Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. Because of his father’s work as an engineer he also lived in St Petersburg and started to study art when only 11 at the Academy of Arts there. From 1855 to 1859 he studied in Paris, then moved to London, where he became familiar with the Aesthetic movement and was to spend most of his career.

Whistler’s art changed dramatically in the 1860s, when he developed an interest in Japanese and other theories. He moved away from realism and developed his own aesthetic theory. His paintings aimed at colour harmony and underlined painterly rather than realistic qualities. His Nocturnes, especially his atmospheric views of the River Thames, were important precursors of Symbolist painting.

A dandy in appearance, witty and flamboyant in personality, Whistler courted notoriety. He voiced his theories in publications such as The Red Rag and in his famous ‘Ten O’Clock’ lecture, first delivered in London in 1885 and translated into French by the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. He moved to Paris in 1892 and often attended Mallarmé’s ‘mardis’, or Symbolist Salons, which met on Tuesdays at 89 rue de Rome.