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James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) was an American artist active during the American Gilded Age and based primarily in the United Kingdom. He was averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting, and was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake.”

He found a parallel between painting and music and entitled many of his paintings “arrangements,” “harmonies,” and “nocturnes,” emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his artistic theories and his friendships with leading artists and writers.

His famous signature for his paintings was in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail.

James McNeill Whistler’s Art

  • Whistler’s Mother
    • “Whistler’s Mother” by James McNeill Whistler depicts the painter’s mother, Anna McNeill Whistler. Its title is “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” but is best known by its colloquial name “Whistler’s Mother.” It is one of the most famous works by an American artist. The painting has been featured in posters and stamps. It has been referenced in many works of fiction and within pop culture.

      An example is a Canadian War recruitment poster that urges men to enlist with the Irish Canadian Rangers and to fight for the women in their own lives. Based on Whistler’s painting of his mother, it appeals to notions of motherhood and family values that were popular at the time and often attributed to this picture. Museum: Musée d’Orsay, Paris

  • Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter
    • “Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter” by James McNeill Whistler depicts the artist in a composition that was influenced by Rembrandt, in whom he was genuinely interested. He had studied Rembrandt’s portraits at the Louvre, and this canvas Whistler arranged a strong opposition of light and shade.

      His wide-brimmed hat and tousled hair echoed Rembrandt’s hats and wavey hair. Visible next to his brushes is his unique signature in the shape of a stylized butterfly with a long tail. Museum:  Detroit Institute of Arts

  • Symphony in White, No. 1 (The White Girl)
    • “Symphony in White, No. 1” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler shows a woman in full figure standing on a wolf skin in front of a white curtain with a white lily in her hand. The woman is dressed all in white, which is the color scheme of the painting. The painting was originally called “The White Girl,” but later, Whistler called it “Symphony in White, No. 1.” Art critics have interpreted the painting as an allegory of innocence and its loss.

      This painting was an early experiment in white on white. This color scheme was a subject he would return to later, in two other paintings that would be given the titles of Symphony in White, No. 2 (1864) and Symphony in White, No. 3 (1865–67). Museum: National Gallery of Art, DC

  • James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Landscapes
    • Southend Pier
      • Southend Pier by James Abbott McNeill Whistler depicts groups of people walking at the water’s edge. Southend Pier a major landmark in Southend-on-Sea, in southeastern Essex, England is in the background. In the early 19th century, Southend was growing as a seaside holiday resort. The coast at Southend consists of large mudflats, so the sea is never very deep even at full tide. The pier was built to allow boats to reach Southend at all tides. By 1848 it was the longest pier in Europe at 7,000 feet (2,100 m). By the 1850s the railway had reached Southend with it a great influx of visitors from London. After this painting was made it was decided to replace the pier with a new iron pier. Museum:  Freer Gallery of Art 
    • Green and Silver: Beaulieu, Touraine
      • “Green and Silver: Beaulieu, Touraine” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler depicts a green meadow, with a house and trees in the distance. A child with red pants stands in the foreground, with another figure beyond in the background. Museum:  Freer Gallery of Art 
    • Sea and Rain
      • Sea and Rain by James Abbott McNeill Whistler depicts a melancholy figure, partly obscured by the translucent blue of a tidal pool. This tonal composition does not startle modern viewers accustomed to abstract art. Still, the minimalism in Whistler’s paintings was unorthodox to a public that was used to the highly finished Academic painting of the period. This highly nuanced painting that evokes the cool, damp, early autumn day at the beach was a new form of art for 1865. Museum: University of Michigan Museum of Art
    • Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea
      • Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea by James Abbott McNeill Whistler depicts the affluent area of South West London bounded to the south by the River Thames. In the 19th century, the area became a Victorian artists’ colony. Chelsea once had a reputation as London’s bohemian quarter, the haunt of artists, radicals, painters, and poets. – Freer Gallery of Art 
  • Nocturne by James Abbott McNeill Whistler
    • Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea
      • “Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler is the artist’s earliest in his London Nocturnes series. This painting is the first of thirty-two nighttime landscapes that Whistler began calling “nocturnes.” All the nocturnes were painted with extremely fluid paint that allowed Whistler to build thin layers of luminous color. The liquid mixture was so thin that the wet canvas had to be painted flat, so the paint would not run. Museum:  Tate Britain
    • Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water
      • Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water by James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an early 1870s step for the artist toward abstraction with his Nocturnes series. Whistler captures the stillness of evening while evoking the artistry of music in the tonal harmonies of twilight. Whistler has depicted an inlet along the English Channel near Southampton obscured by the approaching night. Vessels appear as ghostly shapes, and shadowy forms by the twilight as the fragmented moon is seen on the horizon. Museum:  Art Institute of Chicago
    • Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
      • “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler depicts a fireworks display in London’s Cremorne Gardens. The painting exemplified the Art for art’s sake movement. It is one of his series of Nocturnes and the last of the London Nocturnes. Whistler’s depiction of the city park includes a fireworks display in the foggy night sky. It is fundamentally composed of three main colors: blue, green, and yellow. The billowing smoke provides a clear distinction between the water and the sky, where the separation blurs into a cohesive space. Dabs of yellow enliven the exploding fireworks in the misty air. The figures watching are almost transparent, their shapes general and simplistic. Museum: Detroit Institute of Arts

Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter.

  • Title:                          Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter.
  • Artist:                        James McNeill Whistler
  • Year:                          1872
  • Medium:                    Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions               Height: 74.9 cm (29.4 ″); Width: 53.3 cm (20.9 ″)
  • Museum:                   Detroit Institute of Arts

James McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler Quotes


“To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano.”

“If other people are going to talk, the conversation becomes impossible.”


“An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”

“Oscar Wilde: “I wish I had said that.”
Whistler: “You will, Oscar; you will.”


“I am not arguing with you – I am telling you.”

“You shouldn’t say it is not good. You should say, you do not like it, and then, you know, you’re perfectly safe.”

“I can’t tell you if genius is hereditary, because heaven has granted me no offspring.”


“An artist’s career always begins tomorrow.”


“I maintain that two and two would continue to make four, in spite of the whine of the amateur for three, or the cry of the critic for five.”


Artists you should Know


“An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”
– James Abbott McNeill Whistler


Photo Credit: 1)  James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Hal Ross Perrigard, Harris Lithographing Co. Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By US Post Office (US Post Office) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons