The Magazine

Whistler’s Mother’s Son

A portrait of the artist as a self-invented man.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By AMY HENDERSON
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James Whistler’s flamboyance assured his fame in decades when mass culture was setting new standards for recognition. He was a creature who relished the spotlight, and he became a star player in the increasingly public art scene that surged to the forefront in late-19th-century life. Whether popularizing new kinds of art or sporting wildly unconventional attire, Whistler was attuned to the rising force of modernism. Self-invention was an essential modernist characteristic, and the public image James Abbott McNeill Whistler carefully crafted gave him an identity that still resonates today.

The Peacock Room

The Peacock Room

freer and sackler galleries, smithsonian

Since his death in 1903, bookshelves have been well stocked with Whistler art histories and biographies. But Daniel E. Sutherland’s new work is the first full-fledged biography in more than 20 years, and it is the first to draw extensively on the artist’s unpublished private correspondence. 

Sutherland explains: “I first met James Whistler when I was twelve and he had been dead for fifty-five years.” Sutherland was on a school trip to a museum when he came face-to-face with Whistler’s legendary Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875), and that momentary gaze captured his interest for the next half-century. Now distinguished professor of history at the University of Arkansas, and a recognized expert on 19th-century American culture, Sutherland portrays Whistler as “a pivotal figure in the cultural history” of that century, and perhaps the greatest artist of his generation. 

Born in 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts, Whistler lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, while his civil engineer father worked on the construction of a railroad to Moscow. He first studied drawing there, and he continued that interest when he returned to America to attend West Point. But military discipline was not his style, and when his accumulation of demerits outweighed his academic record, Whistler was dismissed. He went to work at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, which, if nothing else, introduced him to the art of etching. 

Sutherland writes that it was then that the 22-year-old Whistler decided to pursue a career as an artist. Not only was he enthralled by art, he was also “infatuated with the romance of an artist’s life.” In 1855 he left to study in Paris and was quickly mesmerized by the masterworks of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Velázquez he saw at the Louvre. Four years later, he settled in London and began to focus on portraiture. 

Whistler’s 1862 painting The White Girl incited one of the great artistic controversies of the era: “Old duffers” of the Royal Academy, who championed narrative painting, were outraged at Whistler’s “bizarre” and “incomplete” work. Younger, fresher eyes admired his break with convention. When a French critic described the painting as a “symphony in white,” Whistler renamed the piece Symphony in White, No. 1 and began to envision his paintings as musical expressions, calling them symphonies, harmonies, and nocturnes. 

Whistler came of age artistically in years when the art world was being transformed. By the 1860s, the art market, no longer the landed gentry’s private sanctuary, was awash in new wealth. Liverpool shippers, Birmingham industrialists, and London bankers now imposed their tastes on the art world, and their patronage boosted investments in “modern” art. Art was also being “democratized,” writes Sutherland, by the rise of media culture. The magazines and newspapers that appeared in the late 19th century ran popular features on art exhibitions, with headlines trumpeting the art world’s hottest new trends.  

Whistler happily absorbed the possibilities of art’s changing role: It suited his own quest for self-invention. Sutherland writes that the artist “intended that people should see him as he wished to be seen,” and delighted in fashioning a public persona that would “seek notoriety with a consciously invented other self.” At one exhibition in America in 1881, he sported a monocle, a fawn-colored frock coat, patent shoes with pink bows, and his white forelock arranged artfully across his forehead.  

Using new research drawn from Whistler’s letters, Sutherland describes how the artist invented a new manner of painting that captured motion. To give the impression, in his nocturnes, that boats and men were moving, Whistler created “sketchy, unfocused, sparsely shaded, ‘unfinished’ images that implied motion.” Sutherland also chronicles how Whistler’s work was influenced by both the fad for Orientalism and the rise of photography. He describes how japonisme led Whistler to adopt the flattened, two-dimensional perspective and compartmentalized space of Eastern art. The advent of photography convinced Whistler to focus the viewer’s eye on a selected part of a composition, while, as with a camera’s lens, his artist’s brush blurred other areas in the middle or far distance.

By the 1870s, Whistler had become a central figure in the Aesthetic Movement, which was renowned for its belief in “art for art’s sake.” He now signed his works with a stylized butterfly adaptation of his initial “W” and painted his most famous portrait. His Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: The Artist’s Mother was completed in the summer of 1871 and caused much critical consternation when it was exhibited. The London Times sniffed about how “vacant” the canvas seemed, with a “lady in mournful garb” situated in front of a flat, gray wall; another critic complained that it was “not a picture” but an “experiment.”

However, Whistler’s colleagues were thrilled. His friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, exclaimed: “Such a picture .  .  . must make you happy for life, & ought to do good to the time we are now living in.” Whistler himself was pleased: “Yes, one does like to make one’s mummy just as nice as possible!” 

Sutherland also relates the remarkable story of how Whistler created the Peacock Room, his over-the-top masterpiece of interior decoration. An unsuspecting patron, Frederick Leyland, commissioned Whistler in 1876 to decorate some leather panels in his house; but one thing led to another, and (while Leyland was away for several months) Whistler immersed the entire room in a stunning palette of over-glazed peacock blue-greens and metallic gold leaf. Upon his return, Leyland was horrified, but the splendid result—known as Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room—is today a showpiece of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.

Whistler lived his life as an ongoing melodrama, and in the same years that he was involved in the peacock flap, he became embroiled in the era’s most sensational art trial. John Ruskin castigated Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket when it was exhibited at Grosvenor Gallery in 1877. Ruskin ridiculed this abstract night scene of fireworks bursting over the Thames, sneering that it was as if the artist were “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler sued Ruskin for libel and, after a lengthy and greatly ballyhooed trial, won—but the award was a mere farthing for nominal damages. The trial left Whistler bankrupt, and to recoup, he worked feverishly on a new series of Venetian paintings, pastels, and etchings. He ultimately restored his finances and lived out his life in relative comfort, maintaining studios in both Paris and London.

Daniel E. Sutherland’s deep dive into archival resources has enriched this new study with revealing detail, and, as such, it makes an important contribution to Whistler scholarship. But for the general reader, it will not replace Stanley Weintraub’s delightful 1974 biography, which evokes the colorful Whistler with unsurpassed savoir-faire.

Amy Henderson is a cultural historian and critic in Washington.