The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
Home > On-line Edition > Biography

James McNeill Whistler, 1834-1903

Nationality: American
Date of Birth: 1834.07.11
Place of Birth: Lowell, MA
Date of Death: 1903.07.17
Place of Death: London


He was christened James Abbott Whistler. His parents were George Washington Whistler, civil engineer, and his second wife, Anna Matilda McNeill. He had two long-term partners, Joanna Hiffernan and Maud Franklin. During this time he had one illegitimate son, Charles James Whistler Hanson (1870-1935), whose mother was Louisa Fanny Hanson. With Maud he had two children, Ione (b. 1875/1877) and Maud McNeill Whistler Franklin (b. 1879). On 11 August 1888 JW married Beatrix Godwin (née Philip), who already had one son, Edward Godwin.


While in Russia, 1843-48, JW studied art with a student, A. O. Koritskii, and at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. In London, he saw Rembrandt etchings owned by his brother-in-law, Francis Seymour Haden, and Raphael cartoons at Hampton Court.

After his father's death in 1849 the family returned to America. In 1851, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, studying art under Robert W. Weir. Deficiencies in chemistry and discipline led to his expulsion in 1854. An interlude in the drawing division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Washington, DC, provided training in etching, the basis of his future career.

In 1855 he sailed for Europe to study art, and, while remaining an American citizen, never returned. He attended classes at the Ecole Imperiale et Spéciale de Dessin in Paris, and the studio of Charles Gleyre. He visited the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857, forming a life-long passion for the Dutch masters and Velasquez. In the Musée du Louvre, he met Henri Fantin Latour and through him, entered the circle of Gustave Courbet, leader of the Realists. His first important painting, At the Piano (YMSM 24), a portrait of his half-sister Deborah Haden and her daughter Annie, was rejected at the Salon in 1859, but admired by Courbet.

In August 1858 a tour of northern France, Luxembourg and the Rhineland resulted in Twelve Etchings from Nature, 1858 (the 'French Set', K.9-11, 13-17, 19, 21, 22, 24). (excat 3), printed with Auguste Delâtre's help in Paris. JW's etchings hung at the Salon and Royal Academy in 1859. The success of the 'French Set' of etchings encouraged JW to move to London, where he began twelve etchings of the river. In 1862 Baudelaire praised the depiction of contemporary city life in the 'Thames Set'. A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames, 1871 (the 'Thames Set') (K.38-44, 46, 52, 66, 68, 71, 74-76, 95) (excat 4) was published in 1871. JW was established at the forefront of the etching revival.

However, his love of colour, fame, and money, drew him to painting. A heavily realistic oil, La Mère Gérard (1) (YMSM 26), was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861. It was followed in 1862 by The Coast of Brittany (YMSM 37), painted from nature, but with a lighter range of colour and thinner paint. A Thames-side conversation-piece, Wapping (YMSM 35), started in 1861, was exhibited successfully at the Royal Academy in 1864. Bought by Thomas Winans, it was one of the first works by JW exhibited in New York, in 1866.

One of the models was his red-haired Irish mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, who posed in Paris in 1861 for 'The White Girl', later called Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl (YMSM 38). Rejected by the Royal Academy in 1862, it hung in a private London gallery (Morgan's Gallery, Berner's Street). In the first of many published letters, JW denied that it represented a character in Wilkie Collins' novel The Woman in White but 'simply represents a girl dressed in white in front of a white curtain' (Athenaeum, 5 July 1862). In 1863, it became, with Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, the 'succés du scandale' of the Salon de Refusés in Paris. Paul Mantz in the Gazette des Beaux Arts in July 1863 called it a 'Symphonie du blanc'. JW adopted this nomenclature publicly for Symphony in White, No. 3 (YMSM 61) exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1867.

In 1863 JW moved to Lindsey Row, on the Thames in Chelsea where neighbours included D. G. Rossetti. He maintained contact with Europe, introducing Algernon Swinburne to Manet, travelling with Legros to Amsterdam in 1863, posing with Manet and Baudelaire for Fantin's Hommage à Delacroix in 1864 and working with Courbet at Trouville in 1865. In 1866, possibly avoiding family and political problems (the arrest of a friend, the Irish activist, John O'Leary) he travelled to Valparaiso, painting his first night scenes, including Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso Bay (YMSM 76).

In 1865, when the second 'Symphony in White', The Little White Girl, was exhibited at the Royal Academy, JW met Albert Moore, and together they explored the ideals of 'Art for Arts sake'. JW, wishing he had been a pupil of Ingres, began a series of paintings of classically draped women and flowers on a musical theme, known as the 'Six Projects' (Freer Gallery of Art) for the shipowner, F. R. Leyland. Leyland also bought La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (YMSM 50), one of several oriental subjects featuring JW's porcelain. A dispute over the signature may have led JW about 1869 to develop his butterfly signature

After 1870, he abandoned the 'Six Projects' for portraits and night scenes, thinly painted in ribbon-like brush-strokes, with thin washes of paint like glazes, where detail was subordinated to mood and mass. It was Leyland who in 1871 suggested the title 'Nocturnes' for such 'moonlights' as Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea (YMSM 103).

In 1871, JW painted a deeply felt portrait of his mother, restrained in colour and severe in composition. In 1872 this Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (YMSM 101) barely escaped rejection at the Royal Academy and was the last painting he exhibited there, yet it entered the Musée du Louvre twenty years later and became one of the most famous of American portraits. Seeing it, Thomas Carlyle, agreed to pose for a second Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle (YMSM 137), an impressive psychological study. It was the first of JW's paintings to enter a public collection, Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland.

By 1868, the artist had parted from Joanna Hiffernan, who helped look after his illegitimate son, Charles Hanson, born in 1870. Maud Franklin became JW's model and mistress. She stood in for Mrs Frances Leyland's portrait, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland (YMSM 106) where every decorative detail, from rug to dress, was designed by the artist. Leyland backed JW's first one-man exhibition, at a Pall Mall gallery in 1874, where these portraits hung with etchings and pastels.

JW worked on a decorative scheme for Leyland's London house at 49 Princes Gate from 1876-77. The dining room was transformed into an all-embracing Harmony in Blue and Gold based on peacock motifs, far exceeding Leyland's wishes. He paid half the 2000 guineas asked, and JW lost a patron.

He collaborated with Edward W. Godwin on a stand at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1878, and rashly commissioned Godwin to design a studio house 'White House' in Tite Street in 1877. As costs escalated, he pursued a lavish life-style, entertaining guests to 'Sunday breakfasts', becoming known as a dandy and wit.

He also defended his aesthetic theories publicly. Writing to the World on 22 May 1878, regarding Nocturne: Grey and Gold - Chelsea Snow (YMSM 174) then on exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, he explained: 'my combination of grey and gold is the basis of the picture ... the picture should have its own merit, and not depend upon dramatic, or legendary, or local interest'.

In the Grosvenor Gallery, he exhibited Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket (YMSM 181), a portrait of Maud, 'evidently caught in a London fog' as Oscar Wilde wrote (1877). The influential art critic, John Ruskin, singled out Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (YMSM 170), saying writing he 'never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face' (Fors Clavigera, 2 July 1877, pp. 181-213). In the ensuing libel case, JW justified the price: 'I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.' He won the case, but was awarded derisory damages without costs. He published Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics, dedicated to Albert Moore (who had appeared in his defence), the first in a series of brown paper pamphlets, in December 1878.

JW's position was serious. The birth of a daughter to Maud Franklin in February 1879 compounded his domestic problems. To raise money he published etchings, including Old Battersea Bridge (K.177), and, helped by the printer Thomas Way, lithographs, such as The Toilet (C.10), a portrait of Maud. He painted expressive watercolours of Nankin porcelain for a catalogue of Sir Henry Thompson's collection (1878). None of these measures sufficed. In May 1879 he was declared bankrupt. His work, collections and house were auctioned.

With a commission from the Fine Art Society, London dealers, for a set of twelve etchings, he left for Venice. He stayed over a year, producing 50 etchings and over 90 pastels of back streets and canals, bead-stringers and gondoliers. He joined the American author Frank Duveneck and his students in the Casa Jankowitz, and worked on etchings with Otto Bacher. Etchings such as Nocturne (K.184) were distinguished by a delicate combination of etching and drypoint lines with a surface tone of ink, producing effects akin to monotype.

In pastels such as The Zattere; harmony in blue and brown (M.774) the subject was vignetted, the brown paper setting off expressive line and a jewel-like colours. These pastels had considerable influence on the Americans, particularly J. H. Twachtman, and on the Society of American Painters in Pastel founded in 1882.

Exhibited at the Fine Art Society in 1881, framed in three shades of gold, the room decorated in reddish-brown, greenish-yellow and gold, the pastels were extensively reviewed. The etchings were shown in London in 1880 and 1883, and at Wunderlich's in New York in 1883, in an 'Arrangement in White and Yellow' that greatly influenced later exhibition design. The 1881 catalogue, designed by JW, maliciously quoted earlier press reviews.

Mr Whistler's Etchings of Venice, 1880 (the first 'Venice Set') (K. 183-189, 191-195). (excat 5), was published in 1880, but printing took over twenty years. The second set, A Set of twenty-six etchings of Venice, 1886 (the second 'Venice set') (K.196-216, 233-237). (excat 6), published by Messrs Dowdeswell in 1886, was printed within a year. JW etched but never published several later sets, including a 'Jubilee Set' in 1887, a 'Renaissance set' in France in 1888, and Amsterdam in 1889, 'of far finer quality than all that has gone before - combining a minuteness of detail ... with greater freedom and more beauty of execution than even the last Renaissance lot can pretend to' (letter to M. B. Huish, Glasgow University Library).

During the 1880s, he travelled widely, in England, and Continental Europe, and his work was exhibited in Europe and America. The first watercolour he exhibited in New York, at the Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition in 1883, was Snow, painted in Amsterdam in 1882. In 1884 he painted sea-scapes in St Ives with his pupils, the Australian born Mortimer Menpes, and the English Walter Sickert. In 1885 he was in Holland with W. M. Chase. Watercolours like Variations in violet and grey - Market Place, Dieppe (M.1024) were shown beside those of the Impressionists at the Galerie Georges Petit, in Paris, in 1883 and 1887. 'His little sketches show fine draftsmanship' wrote Pissarro in May 1887, 'he is a showman, but nevertheless an artist' (J. Rewald, Camille Pissarro, letters to Lucien Pissarro, London 1943, pp. 108, 110). He oscillated between London, Paris and Dieppe. In 1901 he filled books with sketches of Algiers and Corsica.

JW alternated between small paintings, only 5 x 8" in size, and full-length portraits of actors and aristocrats, children and collectors. Manet introduced him to the art critic Théodore Duret, who agreed to pose, as an experiment, in modern evening dress, carrying a pink cloak, for Arrangement en couleur chair et noir: Portrait de Théodore Duret (YMSM 252). Duret mediated between the artist and the aristocratic Lady Archibald Campbell, and thus saved Arrangement in Black: La Dame au brodequin jaune - Portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell (YMSM 242), shown in the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893.

Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate (YMSM 315), painted in 1884, and showing the violinist spotlit on stage, was exhibited in London, Hamburg, Paris and finally, in 1896, Pittsburgh, where it was bought by the Carnegie Institute, the first American public collection to acquire his work. Exhibiting at International exhibitions in Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Munich, in Chicago and Philadelphia, in Dublin, Glasgow and St. Petersburg, he gained medals and honours.

In 1885 he delivered the 'Ten O'Clock' lecture in Princes Hall (published in 1888), an eloquent exposition of his views on art and artists. Stéphane Mallarmé translated it into French and introduced JW to the Symbolist circle in Paris. Extensive correspondence and subjects like Purple and Gold: Phryne the Superb! - Builder of Temples (YMSM 490) document their growing friendship.

In 1886, the Society of British Artists in London, in need of rejuvenation, risked electing JW as President. He set out autocratically to reform the Society, revamping the galleries, designing a 'velarium' to soften the light and direct it on the pictures, rejecting sub-standard pictures, and inviting foreigners like Waldo Storey and Alfred Stevens, and invitations to foreigners like and Claude Monet to exhibit. The Society revolted, and he was forced to resign.

Meanwhile, pastels, oils, drawings and watercolours- like the atmospheric Nocturne in grey and gold - Piccadilly (M.862) hung in three one-man exhibitions of 'Notes'- 'Harmonies'- 'Nocturnes' at Messrs Dowdeswells in 1884 and 1886 and at Wunderlich's in New York in 1889. This gave Americans, like Howard Mansfield, Howard Whittemore, and Charles L. Freer, the opportunity to buy their first Whistlers. They flocked to his studio.

In 1888, JW married Beatrice, widow of E. W. Godwin. An artist and designer, she worked beside him, encouraging his pastels of young models, like the Pettigrew sisters, and lithographs. Some of his finest lithographs, like The Duet, No. 2 (C.96) of 1894, show Beatrice at home in 110 rue du Bac in Paris, and the most poignant, By the Balcony (C.160) and The Siesta (C.159) were drawn as she lay dying of cancer, during his lithography exhibition at the Fine Art Society in 1895. She died in 1896, and her young sister, Rosalind Birnie Philip, became JW's ward and inherited his estate.

JW's collection of letters and pamphlets on Art, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, was published by William Heinemann in 1890. JW's butterflies, a sting in their tails, match each document. Another book (James Whistler, Eden Versus Whistler: The Baronet & the Butterfly. A valentine with a verdict, New York, 1899) recorded a lawsuit against Sir William Eden in 1898, which resulted in a change to French law, giving artists control over their work.

In 1896, JW was elected first President of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers. Joseph Pennell, JW's friend and future biographer, was an active and argumentative committee member. Independent artists from Europe and America were invited to send work to their exhibitions, in 1898, 1899 and 1900, but Academicians were discouraged. The exhibitions were sparely hung, coherent and effective. JW's own exhibits were modest, fluidly-painted panels like Green and Silver: The Great Sea (YMSM 518), and severely geometrical shopfronts like Gold and Orange: The Neighbours (YMSM 423).

His last portraits, Portrait of Charles L. Freer (YMSM 550), Portrait of Richard A. Canfield (YMSM 547), Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt (YMSM 481), and of a young red-head model, Dorothy Seton, in Dorothy Seton - A Daughter of Eve (YMSM 552), were painted with the forceful brushwork and thin skin of paint, the strong characterisation and subtle colour, that characterised his work.

In his last self-portrait, Brown and Gold (YMSM 440), the pose was based on Velasquez' portrait of Pablo de Valladolid in the Prado. In 1900 it hung in the American section of the Paris Universal Exposition, but he continued to rework it until his death. Painted with nervous flickering brushwork, serious and introspective, it is a deeply moving work. JW died in London on 17 July 1903.


Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995; MacDonald, M. F., 'James McNeill Whistler', in MacMillan's Dictionary of Art, London, 1996.