James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American painter and etcher. He is perhaps best known for his nearly black-and-white full-length portrait of his mother, titled Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 1, but usually referred to as Whistler's Mother. Though American, Whistler lived and worked mainly in Britain and France. His painting The White Girl (1862) caused controversy when exhibited in London and, later, at the Salon des RefusÚs in Paris. The painting epitomised Whistler's theory that art should essentially be concerned with the beautiful arrangement of colors in harmony, not with the accurate portrayal of the natural world, as recommended by the critic John Ruskin. In 1878 Whistler sued Ruskin for libel after the critic condemned his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, calling the artist a "coxcomb". Whistler won a farthing in nominal damages. The cost of the case bankrupted him.


Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl
Painted 1862

Whistler was friendly with various French artists, illustrating the book Les Chauves-Souris with Antonio de La Gandara. He also knew the impressionists, notably Edouard Manet, and was also a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement. He was well-known for his biting wit, especially in exchanges with his friend Oscar Wilde. Both were well-known figures in the cafe society of Paris, at the turn of the 20th century. Whistler's famous riposte to Wilde's statement, "I wish I'd said that" -- "You will Oscar, you will", may be apocryphal.

Whistler's belief that art should concentrate on the arrangement of colors has led many critics to see his work as a precursor of abstract art.

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Further reading

  • James McNeil Whistler by by Lisa N. Peters ISBN 1880908700