James McNeill Whistler was born in Massachusetts
1834, the son of an engineer. He was an ill-tempered child, noted to often be insolent or lazy. His parents discovered that he enjoyed drawing, and that it would often settle him down. In 1842 his father began work on a railway in St. Petersburg, Russia
, and a year later Whistler went to join him. There, at the age of eleven, he enrolled at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. He did well at the school, and enjoyed his time there. In 1844 he met Sir William Allan, a noted painter who praised the boy's work. In 1847 he and his family, not including his father, travelled to England
to visit relatives. During this time he became more interested in art, spurred on by a relative and his coming into possession of several art books. At 15 he decided to follow an artistic career path, though his plans remained half-formed. His father died in 1849, and the family returned to America. His mother sent him to Christ Church Hall School, where she hoped he would become a minister. He was popular among his classmates, but the school didn't suit him. He applied to the West Point United States Militray Academy, and got in despite his nearsightedness and general sickliness. He remained at the school for three years, during which time he maintained poor grades and accrued demerits for his disobeying of rules. He left the school either after failing an exam or for misconduct. While at West Point he learned drawing and mapmaking.
His first job was as a draftsman, mapping the coast for the army, by which he was immensely bored. He spent his time lazing about, playing billiards and burning through any money he earned. When his doodles on the edges of his maps were discovered he was transferred to the etching division, where he picked up the skill of etching. He left soon after, and became determined that he would make art his career. He moved in with a wealthy friend, where he stayed for a few months. His mother urged him to find a real job, but he refused. In 1855 he moved to Paris
, never returning to America again. In Paris he set up a studio in the Latin Quarter, and was quickly drawn to the bohemian lifestyle that permeated the artist community. He studied at the Ecole Imperial, and at the studio of another artist, Charles Gabriel Gleyre, who influenced Whistler in his use of line and the colour black in his works. However, Whistler favoured self-study, spending long hours working in the Louvre when not spending time in cafes. Whistler continued to spend vast amount of money, though he made very little in sales, and was consistently in debt. He made money by making copies at the Louvre, and by borrowing money from wealthy friends. In 1857, he was quite ill due to his excessive drinking and smoking on top of his usual health problems. In 1858 he got better, and toured with another artist, Ernest Delannoy. He also completed a series of etchings, the "French Set" along with Auguste Delatre. Also at this time he met Henri Fantin-Latour, who introduced him to a circle of artists that included Charles Baudelaire. Together this circle of artists encouraged in Whistler a desire to paint reality, as it were. His first exhibited work, La Mere Gerard
, was painted in 1858. Soon after he moved to London
and completed his second work, At the Piano
, which was well-received by critics. In 1860 he created the "Thames Set", a new series of etchings.
In 1861 he created his most famous work, Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl
, a painting of his mistress which won him great critical acclaim. In 1863 he created several more paintings of his mistress, each of these portraying his growing interest in Asian themes and designs. In 1864, however, his mistress possibly had an affair with another painter, and their relationship began to deteriorate. In 1866 he visited Chile
for reasons unknown, and created three paintings that he originally referred to as "moonlights", and later as "nocturnes". He continued to paint these nocturnes after he returned to London. By 1870 he had begun to drift away from realism, and from his relationship with his mistress. In 1871 he painted a picture of his mother, most often referred to as Whistler's Mother
, using mostly black and gray, which was poorly received by critics at the time due to its austerity and simplicity. In 1872 he began to rename his paintings using musical terms, such as symphony and nocturne because he wanted to highlight the tonal elements of his pieces. In 1874 Edgar Degas invited Whistler to show with the Impressionists, but he declined largely because of his dislike of the Impressionist focus on colour over form and eschewal of black. Between 1873 and 1884 he painted several more portraits, but he was an excessively slow painter and his portraits were not particularly popular. Between 1876 and 1877 he was also involved in the decoration of a room for one of the subjects of his portraits, F.R. Leyland. This room, called the Peacock Room caused a rift between the two men, as they could not agree on the amount owed to Whistler or on the quality of the work.
In 1877 one of his paintings, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
, was criticized by art critic John Ruskin. In response, Whistler sued him for libel. He sought 1,000 pounds in damages, plus the cost of the action. The case went to trial at the end of November 1878. Though he had expected the support of the artist community, he received little, and the jury themselves reacted poorly to his work. Nonetheless, Whistler won the case, though he was awarded only a farthing in damages and the men were ordered to split the cost of the suit. By 1879 this setback and the building of his house had bankrupted him, and his house, possessions and works were auctioned. In the 1880s he was commissioned to do work in Venice
. He travelled there along with his mistress, and lived in a run-down palazzo with several other artists. He was supposed to stay there for only three months, but ended up remaining there for fourteen. In that time, he created over 150 works of art. When he returned to London the works sold well, and he exhibited some works, but his success there was limited. He remained relatively broke, but attracted a collection of younger painters who idolized him and his works. In 1885 he released his first book, Ten O'clock Lecture
, the first cogent expression of his ideal of "art for art's sake", rejecting the very Victorian notion of the morality or purpose of art. In 1884 he became a member of the Society of British Artists, and was elected president two years later. In 1887 during the Queen's
Golden Jubilee he presented her with an elaborately decorated album, for which she gave the Society the formal attribution of "Royal". A feud arose with the Royal Academy of Arts, in part because of Whistler's actions, and in 1888 he was not reelected to the post of president. Without warning in 1888 he proposed to and married Beatrice Godwin, whose connections helped draw in commissions. In 1890 he released another book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies
, which met with mixed reviews. Also in 1890 he met Charles Lang Freer, a future patron, and began experimenting with colour photographs and lithographs. In 1891 the French
government purchased Whistler's Mother
for 4,000 francs.
He put on a solo show that had a lukewarm reception, and decided to leave London. He and Beatrice moved to Paris in 1892, where he set up a large studio and rejoined the vibrant art scene. In 1896 Beatrice was diagnosed with cancer, and the pair returned to London in February. She died a few months after they returned. In his last years of life he worked on a few paintings and lithographs. In 1898 he founded an art school, but it closed in 1901 due to his waning health and subsequent poor attendance. He died on July 17th, 1903 at the age of 69.