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James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Virtual Tour

James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James McNeill Whistler – Virtual Tour

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 importance 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.

Virtual Tour James McNeill Whistler

Highlights Tour of James McNeill Whistler

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 initially 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

Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea

“Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler depicts South West London’s affluent area 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.

Painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, J. M. W. Turner, James McNeill Whistler, William Holman Hunt, and John Singer Sargent all lived and worked here.

There was an unusually large concentration of artists around Cheyne Walk and Cheyne Row, where the Pre-Raphaelite movement had its heart. Museum:  Freer Gallery of Art 

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 significant 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 extensive mudflats, so the sea is never bottomless, 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 significant 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 artwork 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

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

“Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler explores the challenges in technique and composition.

Whistler also reflected on his own psyche. The image is dominated by a cool, appraising gaze with deceptive immediacy. 

The composition of the portrait reveals a strong Japanese influence with its flattened forms and gradations of color.

The Peacock Room

The Peacock Room is a decorative art masterpiece created by James McNeill Whistler and Thomas Jeckyll. It was completed in 1877 and is one of the great surviving aesthetic interiors of the Anglo-Japanese style.

Whistler painted the paneled room in brilliant blue-greens with over-glazing and metallic gold leaf. Thomas Jeckyll was the architect and initial designer of the room.

The Peacock Room was originally designed as a dining room for a townhouse in Kensington in London, owned by the British shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland.

Leyland engaged the leading British architectural firm, of the time, to remodel and redecorate his home. The architectural firm turned to Thomas Jeckyll, who was experienced in the Anglo-Japanese style, for the remodeling of the dining room.

Jeckyll conceived the dining room for the display of Chinese Porcelain. Jekyll constructed an intricate lattice framework of engraved spindled walnut shelves to hold Leyland’s collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain. Museum:  Freer Gallery of Art

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain

“Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler depicts a Western woman wearing a kimono and standing amidst numerous Asian objects, including a rug and screen, as well as some porcelain.

The woman holds a hand fan, and her pose echos the elongated Asian female figures depicted in ancient Asian artworks.

“The Princess” is one of several of Whistler’s works painted during the 1860s that depict a Western woman with Asian motifs and Asian clothes.

Princess was painted between 1863 and 1865 with Christine Spartali, the sister of Pre-Raphaelite artist Marie Spartali Stillman, serving as the model. Spartali has been described as an Anglo-Greek beauty “whom all the artists of the day were clamoring to paint.”

Whistler’s large signature on the top left of the canvas drew critical comments. Also, the prominent signature led to potential buyers to withdraw from purchasing the artwork because of the signature’s prominence.

This criticism of Whistler’s prominent signature prompted Whistler to develop his more subtle butterfly-style signature in his future artworks. Museum:  Freer Gallery of Art

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
  • Category:                   American Artist
  • Dimensions               Height: 74.9 cm (29.4 ″); Width: 53.3 cm (20.9 ″)
  • Museum:                   Detroit Institute of Arts

James McNeill Whistler: A collection of paintings

James McNeill Whistler

  • Name:             James Abbott McNeill Whistler
  • Born:               1834 -Lowell, Massachusetts, US
  • Died:               1903 (aged 69) – London, England, UK
  • Nationality:      American
  • Movement:     Founder of Tonalism

James Abbott McNeill Whistler in London

The Gentle Art of Making Enemies 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.”


An American in London: Whistler and the Thames


Artists you should Know

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

Lecture: Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake


“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

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