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James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Date: American painter and printmaker, 1834–1903
Biography: James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), American artist, based primarily in the U.K, he was a leading member of the Aesthetic Movement and proponent of the ‘art for art’s sake philosophy.’ Born in Waltham, MA, the son of a railway engineer, his earliest artistic training, at age 11 was enrolled at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, where his father was serving as an engineer for the Russian Railroad. Back in the U.S. short periods of enrollment at Christ Church Hall School and The United States Military Academy at West Point were followed by a short career as a draftsman. In 1855 he moved to Paris and adopted the bohemian life, studying briefly with the neo-classical academic artist Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. In Paris he was particularly influenced by the writer on modern art, Charles Baudelaire and critic and writer Théophile Gautier. After a brief period in London c. 1859060, he returned to Paris to paint his first famous work, a full-length portrait of his model and mistress Joanna Hiffernan, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1861). He began painting in nocturnes while on a visit to Chile in 1866. These soft-focus evening scenes painted in muted tonalities in thin layers of paint are some of his best known works. During the Franco-Prussian War Whistler and many of his Parisian artistic colleagues sought refuge in England. He began painting portraits of some of the most important personages of the day in politics and the social scene. Whistler was also a talented printmaker producing etchings, lithographs and drypoints. He is remembered as much for his argumentative nature as for his artistic output, the two most notable contretemps being the falling out with his patron Frederick Leyland over the decoration of “The Peacock Room” (1876-77) and the trial engaged against the notable critic John Ruskin (1877) for his denigrating his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. In later years he continued to travel, finding patrons in France, England, and America – including Charles Lang Freer who formed a significant collection of Whistler’s work (now Freer Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.).