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work is the first full-fledged biography in more than 20 years, and it is the first to draw extensively on the artist’s unpublished private correspondence.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.