James McNeill Whistler ‘In Search of Harmony’

arrangement in grey and black: portrait of the painte's mother painting by james mcneill whistler

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

James McNeill Whistler was one of the most original artists, and one of the most outrageously theatrical characters of the 19th century. Born in America, he spent much of his childhood in Russia before returning home to enroll as a military cadet. A failed chemistry exam cut short his army career, and at 21 he moved to Paris to paint. But it was in London, his home base from 1859, that he gained fame - or rather notoriety.

Drawing inspiration from Japanese art, Whistler developed a daringly individual style of painting in which subject matter was largely irrelevant and harmonious composition all-important. To the Victorian eye, his pictures looked 'unfinished', and he even sued a critic for describing his work as 'a pot of paint flung in the public's face'. It was only late in his life that his art was appreciated. He died in London, aged 69.

arrangement in the gray, portrait of the james mcneill whistler


An American Abroad

An ostentatious eccentric, Whistler was born in America but spent all of his adult life abroad. He viewed the world as a sophisticated, witty, and highly critical observer.

'To begin with,' wrote James Abbot McNeill Whistler in a fragment of autobiography he never completed, 'I am not an Englishman. Although he lived in England longer than anywhere else, he was constantly traveling and always regarded himself as an outsider. He was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but his father, Major George Washington Whistler, had resigned his army commission to make commercial use of his expertise as a civil engineer, and in 1843 he took his family to St Petersburg in Russia as the Tsar's engineer in charge of railway building. They lived in some style: the young Whistler skated on the River Neva, learned French from his Swedish tutor, and developed a passion for military parades and firework displays.

picture of st petersburg, russia

A Russian childhood:
Although Whistler was born in America, he was raised in Russia, in the beautiful city of St Petersburg. Whistler's father was employed by Tsar Nicolas I and the family lived in considerable style.

picture of anna mathilda mother of james mcneill whistler
picture of major george washington whistler father of james mcneill whistler

Whistler's parents:
Whistler's mother, Anna Mathilda, was a puritanical woman, with a deeply reflective nature. His father, Major George Washington Whistler, had acquired a brilliant reputation as a civil engineer and was eager for his son to follow in his footsteps. He often warned Whistler not to let his taste in art become 'too poetical'.


In 1845, when Whistler was 10 years old, he began to attend drawing lessons at the Imperial Academy and a year later emerged first in his class. But in the e summer of 1848, his mother, fearing the effects of another Russian winter, took her family to London. In April the following year, her husband died of cholera, and the family was forced to return home to America.

Whistler's mother was an extremely pious woman, and it was her hope that her son would become a minister, but he had no vocation for it. A career in art was out of the question; so in 1851 he enrolled at the West Point Military Academy, however, he was not cut out for military life either: he rebelled against every aspect of discipline and when, three years later, he failed a chemistry examination, he was discharged.

By now Whistler was determined to become an artist and in 1855 he left for Paris. There he joined the studio of Charles Gleyre, who did not charge fees and became an enthusiastic follower of Gustave Courbet, the Realist painter. He also set about perfecting his role as a dandy and wit. Physically, he was short and slight, almost dainty, but galvanized by restless energy. His hair, about which he was very vain all his life, was thick and curly, with a curious white streak at the front. His clothes were always eccentric: in Paris, he favored a broad-brimmed straw hat with a ribbon, a monocle, a white suit, and patent-leather shoes. His manner was never less than theatrical, being a mixture of pugnacity and sharp humour.

In 1859 Whistler decided to go to London to live in the far greater comfort of his brother-in-law's house. He brought with him At the Piano, which in 1860 was accepted by the Royal Academy and praised by John Everett Millais, whom he greatly admired. By then, however, Whistler had quarrelled, not for the first or last time, with his brother-in-law, and had taken a studio of his own. He started work on what was to be his favourite subject for the rest of his life, the River Thames, making a series of etchings and a painting of the dockside at Wapping. He also began using the model who was to be his companion for the next seven years - Joanna Heffernan, known as Jo. She appears in his controversial early work The White Girl, and again in The Little White Girl.

After a holiday in France when he nearly drowned and had to be rescued by Jo, Whistler leased a house overlooking the Thames, near the old Battersea bridge. They lived there toge until his mother came to England in 1863, and jo was forced to remove herself to lodgings nearby. Whistler's mother settled into the house but discreetly confined herself to the living quarters, never straying into the studio, except for once when she discovered the maid posing naked.

Whistler had now established himself as an artist of great originality and as one of the most extraordinary personalities of his times. He became acquainted with a wide circle of painters and writers in London, becoming especially friendly with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with whom he shared a passion for collecting blue and white pottery and Japanese artifacts of every kind. But towards the end of 1865, he joined his original mentor Gustave Courbet at Trouville in France, and Courbet described him as his 'English pupil'

In 1866 Whistler suddenly decided that his honor as a West Point man required him to see military action and so, pausing only to make a will leaving everything to Jo, he set sail for Valparaiso to help the Chileans who were then at war with Spain. He arrived in time to watch the Spanish fleet bombard the port and then hostilities were suspended. A prolonged wait ensued before he found a ship to take him home. The sole legacy of this farcical adventure was some fine seascapes and studies of the harbor.

portrait of jamnes mcneill whistler

The aspiring artist:
Whistler arrived in Paris in November 1855, determined to become an artist. He immediately threw himself into the role of Bohemian dandy, roaming the streets of the Left Bank dressed in outlandish style. When the artist Fantin-Latour noticed him in the Louvre, he was so taken by this 'strange character in a bizarre hat' that he invited him to join his circle of artistic friends, which included the etcher Alphonse Legros and the painter Edouard Manet. Soon, Whistler joined Charles Gleyre's studio.

Jo, meanwhile, had been driven by poverty to find work in Paris, where Courbet, long an admirer of the 'superb redhead', painted her in an erotic picture showing a pair of lesbian lovers. When Whistler returned to England, they resumed their old pattern of life, but only briefly. By the next year, Jo had disappeared and was seldom mentioned by Whistler again.

Artistically, he was now very confused, and in his dealings with people, he became incredibly intolerant. Inevitably, one of his victims was his brother-in-law, whom he pushed through a plate glass window. Gradually, however, he managed to bring order back to his life and work. He vented some of his aggression by taking boxing lessons from a professional, and he began to paint his famous Nocturnes and portraits. Though the Nocturnes remained largely unsold, Whistler himself was confident that in them he had, at last, fulfilled his genius. The portraits were more successful, and for the first time in his adult life, Whistler got out of serious debt.

picture of west point cadets military academy

A West Point cadet:
After his father's death, Whistler spent three years at West Point Military Academy. He was a terrible cadet - always chatting and laughing in ranks, changing ranks behind the sergeant's back and holding his bayonet incorrectly. In 1854, having accumulated an enormous number of demerit points, he failed a simple chemistry exam and was discharged.

picture of tite street, chelsea

Tite Street, Chelsea:
From 1859, Whistler spent most of his time in London and in 1878, despite being heavily in debt, decided to have a house built for him in fashionable Tite Street, Chelsea. 'The White House', as it was to be called, was duly designed by E.W. Godwin, the leading architect of the Aesthetic movement.

Whistler versus Ruskin'

In July 1877, the famous critic John Ruskin launched an abusive attack on Whistler, denouncing the 'unfinished appearance of his Nocturne in Black and Gold; The Falling Rocket: 'I have seen and heard much of Cockney impudence', he wrote, but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public.' In a fury, Whistler sued for libel, but although he won the verdict, he was awarded only one farthing in damages and never lived it down.

punch cartoon, whistler versus ruskin

Punch cartoon:
The court case caused great merriment in the. press, but broke Ruskin emotionally and Whistler financially.

nocturne in blake and gold

Nocturne in Black and Gold:
The painting at the centre of the trial was inspired by a firework display on the Thames.


In 1875, his mother, now 71 years old, was ordered to leave London for the sake of her health and Whistler moved his new mistress, Maud Franklin, into the house. Her portraits show her as slim and elegant, with glorious auburn hair.

One of Whistler's patrons at this time was Frederick Leyland, an extremely wealthy Liverpool ship-owner. In 1876 Leyland arranged to have his London house in Kensington completely refurbished. Its showpiece was a Whistler picture and he invited the painter to give his opinion of the new décor. Whistler suggested a few modest alterations and Leyland departed for Liverpool, leaving Whistler a free hand and the use of his account at a shop selling gold leaf.

Whistler seized his opportunity and, working in a frenzy throughout the summer, covered the walls, woodwork, window shutters, panels even the ceiling, with a design of blue and gold peacocks. He then invited friends, journalists, and other patrons to admire his masterpiece, and issued an explanatory broadsheet.

When Leyland returned, he was furious that his home had been thrown open to the critics and paid Whistler only £1,000, instead of the 2,000 guineas demanded. Whistler replied by painting an unflattering portrait of him, and the relationship ended.

If the break with Leyland proved a major setback it was soon to be followed by a greater disaster. In July 1877 the great critic, John Ruskin, denounced Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold; The Falling Rocket and accused him of 'flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public'. Whistler, who could never resist a fight, immediately sued for libel.

When the case was tried a year later, Whistler won the verdict - but only one farthing in damages. The cost of the trial pushed him deep into debt, and in the meantime, his reputation had slumped.

Despite his desperate situation, Whistler was living very extravagantly. In 1878, he had had a house built for him, the White House in Tite Street, Chelsea, and had become very friendly with his architect, William Godwin, and his wife, Beatrix. Bills and writs poured into his new address; he even owed £600 to his greengrocer, who refused to be paid in Nocturnes.

Whistler, however, preserved a jaunty indifference and did not hesitate to use the bailiffs as waiters at his famous breakfasts. But the inevitable came in May 1879, when he petitioned for bankruptcy, declaring debts of £4,500. Two days before the sale of his effects and the house, he gave the last breakfast and left for Venice to join Maud.

During the ensuing months of hardship and exile, he was very dependent on Maud's support. In Venice he concentrated on etching and, when he returned to London in 1880, he held an exhibition that helped to restore his tattered reputation. He was commissioned to paint more portraits and a second exhibition of his etchings was attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Appreciation and respect were, at last, coming his way. A small school of followers gathered around him, addressing him, at his insistence, as 'The Master'. Most remarkable of the 'Followers' was the writer and wit Oscar Wilde. He and Whistler amused themselves with barbed banter, much of it reproduced in the press, and for a while they were on very friendly terms.

caricature of james mcneill whistler by max beerbohm

The public image:

This caricature by Max Beerbohm presents the popular image of Whistler - the outrageous dandy, sporting a monocle, giving evidence in court. Although a rather small man - Oscar Wilde described him as a "miniature Mephistopheles' - Whistler was always a larger-than-life figure with a flair for self-publicity.

harmoney in red, lamplight painting by james mcneill whistler

'Trixie' Whistler:
In August 1888, Whistler married Beatrix Godwin. His previous relationships with Jo and Maud - both stunning red-haired models - had been long-lasting but tempestuous. Beatrix, however, worshipped him, tolerated his tantrums, and was a gifted artist herself. Their marriage was, by all accounts, an extremely happy one.

Whistler's Poet Friends

In the 1860s, Whistler met the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and was soon intoxicated by the passion and lyricism of his verse. The admiration was mutual, and in 100 Swinburne wrote a poem to Whistler's Little White Girl. However, the friendship ended in 1888, when the sickly and excitable Swinburne wrote a scornful review of Whistler's Ten O'Clock Lecture. Now, another literary figure - the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé - took Swinburne's place in the artist's affections. Mallarmé, who sympathized entirely with Whistler's artistic vision, translated the lecture into French and became a stimulating friend.

portrait of swinburne by dante gabriel rossetti

Swinburne (1837-1900):
Swinburne was part of Rossetti's brilliant circle: this portrait was painted by Rossetti in 1861. He formed a very close friendship with Whistler - addressing the artist as 'mon père' and signing himself, respectfully, 'ton fils'.

blanche painting of stephane mallarme

Mallarmé (1842-1898):
Whistler was properly introduced to Mallarmé in the 1880s when his friend Claude Monet arranged for them to meet over lunch. Mallarmé admitted that the artist had always made a très rare impression' on him.

picture of hague holland

Trip to the Hague:
In the last years of his life, Whistler traveled constantly but in 1902, while on a trip to Holland, he was taken seriously ill. Confined to his hotel in the Hague, he wrote to the Morning Post thanking them for his premature obituary. He died in July of the following year, shortly after his 69th birthday.


In 1886, while Maud was in France, Whistler began to see much more of Beatrix Godwin, or Trixie as he called her, who was by then amicably separated from her husband. Godwin died shortly afterwards and Trixie became a regular visitor to Whistler's studio. Maud brought things to a head by posing naked for a young Follower named William Stoddard, and on 11 August 1888 Whistler and Trixie were married. Probably for the first time in his life, he was in love.

Marriage seems to have mellowed him, and though there were fresh quarrels there were also new honours and successes. In March 1891 his portrait of Thomas Carlyle was bought by the Corporation of Glasgow for 1000 guineas. This sale made a tremendous impact on the art world. Shortly afterwards the portrait of his mother was bought by the French government for the Louvre and he was made an Officer of the Legion d'Honneur. A large retrospective exhibition of Whistler's work was held in 1892 and he began to attract the interest of collectors.

Whistler and Trixie now moved to Paris to live in a house specially decorated in his fastidious style. In January 1894 the first installment of Trilby by George Du Maurier appeared in America. The novel, which was an instantaneous best-seller, contained thinly disguised portraits of Du Maurier's fellow students in Paris in the 1850s; Whistler was unflatteringly represented as 'the idle apprentice, the king of Bohemia'. He was enraged and instantly wanted to sue for libel, but was advised against it.

At the end of that year, Trixie became ill and they returned to London - she was found to be suffering from cancer. Whistler wrote that her illness made his life 'one long anxiety and terror'. He struggled to work, but his fears for her life had become confused with doubts about his own creative powers. To relieve his frustration, he indulged in more petty litigation. Finally, after they had moved to a house on Hampstead Heath, Trixie died in May 1896. Whistler was devastated by grief but gradually recovered. During his last years, he fought one more legal case, which after two trials he won.

He was now suffering from a circulatory illness, which made him almost always feel cold. In the winter of 1900, he went to North Africa for the sake of his health, which he declared had been ruined by living in the midst of English pictures'. He sold his house in France and mostly confined himself to a house he leased in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. In 1903, having been ill for some time with pneumonia and heart disease, he died. It is said that among the few friends and relatives who attended the funeral Jo, now an elderly lady, was to be seen.


In Search of Harmony

Throughout his life, Whistler continually shocked the public by painting pictures with purely aesthetic themes - his main concern was for a harmonious arrangement of pattern and color.

As a man Whistler was flamboyant, aggressive, and sardonic: as a painter, however, he was the Opposite for on canvas he was subtle, discreet sensitive. The scope of his creativity was perhaps narrow, but he was nevertheless one of the 19th century's most original painters: and, to the English at least, one of the most shocking.


Apart from his lessons at the Imperial Academy in St Petersburg, the only formal training he received as an artist was at West Point, where a facility for drawing was thought indispensable in a soldier, and at the Coastal Survey in Washington, where he was taught cartographic etching. By the time he reached Paris, he had already achieved that independence of mind and confidence in his own method which was to amaze - and irritate – the world throughout his life. During his student days, he appears to have learned far more from his circle of French artist friends than from his infrequent attendances at Gleyre's studio.

From the very start of his career, Whistler was opposed to the kind of painting in which the & English Academician excelled - namely the highly wrought genre picture, which either told a story or illustrated a conspicuous moral, using an abundance of anecdotal detail and creating a dazzling illusion of three-dimensional depth.

Whistler was not interested in performing tricks with perspective, nor in painting likenesses o of familiar objects and places. He was solely concerned with what was to be seen on the surface of the canvas, with color harmony, the play of # light and shade, and the patterns made by shapes on the picture plane. He was reaching toward the kind of art we now call 'abstracť.

In order to stress the purely aesthetic intention behind his work, he often chose titles based on musical terms. Thus, his river scenes were Nocturnes', his portraits, especially of women, were 'Symphonies' or 'Harmonies', and portraits dominated by black and grey were usually 'Arrangements'. When giving titles to his portraits, he almost always gave precedence to the color scheme over the name of the subject.

Whistler was by no means alone in drawing parallels between painting and music, but although he rather relished the annoyance his musical titles caused, he also used them as a declaration of his artistic creed. 'As music is the poetry of sound,' he once said, 'so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or color.' In other words, art is primarily a visual experience, not to be confused with literary or moral issues.

In his opinion, a painting was not truly completed until every trace of the work that had gone into making it had disappeared. The finished picture was to be a perfect representation vision originally composed by the artists This desire for flawless perfection made the method of painting extremely laborious and often despaired of making a living because output was so slow.

purple and rose, the lange leizen of the six marks painting by james mcneill whistler

The Lange Leizen (1864):
The oriental influence in Whistler's painting was initially confined to the decorative and exotic qualities of Eastern artifacts. Here, a woman in a kimono sits amid a profusion of bric-à-brac, taking her name from the long figures on the blue and white china which she is painting

screen with old battersea bridge painting by james mcneill whistler

Screen with Old Battersea Bridge(1872):
Whistler's artistic interests encompassed all aspects of interior design. The bold simplicity of the moon-lit view on this Japanese-style screen shows a complete assimilation of oriental composition.

at the piano painting by james mcneill whistler

At the Piano (1858-59):
This intimate picture of the artist's sister and niece was well received when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860. Influenced by the Dutch Masters, it shows a subtle use of limited colour and an interest in the musical theme which later formed the basis for the titles of many of Whistler's paintings.

valparaiso painting by james mcneill whistler

Valparaiso (1866):
This seascape resulted from Whistler's journey to Chile in 1866 and shows new attention to colour and light. In the twilight, the ships of the Chilean fleet are reduced to shadowy forms against subtle gradations of colour -- a theme which is developed in Nocturnes of the Thames and Chelsea.

Whistler on Art

‘Art should be independent of all clapt should stand alone, and appeal to the article sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works "arrangements" and "harmonies".'

little juniper bud portrait by james mcneill whistler

Little Juniper Bud(1896):
In the last 20 years of his life, Whistler painted many close-up portraits, often of young girls. His late sketchy style is evident in this unfinished picture - a haunting portrait of Lizzie Willis, his housekeeper's daughter.

rotherhithe sketch by james mcneill whistler

A master etcher:
Whistler was trained as an etcher and returned to this medium at various stages throughout his life. Rotherhithe was the most ambitious of many early etchings of life on the River Thames, made while he lived in Wapping.


Colour Harmonies

Just as a composer selects a certain key to create a particular mood in a piece of music, so an artist can choose a predominant colour to give a painting a distinctive atmosphere. Whistler stressed the importance of colour in the titles of his pictures, but other contemporary artists - such as Edward Burne-Jones and Albert Moore - also made use of resonant colour themes in their paintings.

Whistler knew both these artists well, and all three shared a concern for mood and aesthetic beauty, which they often expressed in terms of listless, beautiful women draped in dresses of a single colour.

dreamers painting by albert moore

Albert Moore(1841-93) Dreamers:
A row of dreaming girls dressed in delicate yet white are arranged rhythmically strong pale sofa. Though an oriental influence is evident in the fan on the right, Moore's decoratively elegant women were inspired by Greek sculpture.

the garden of hesperides painting by sir edward burne-jones

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) The Garden of Hesperides:
These mythical maidens, dressed in flowing russet-colored robes, were the "daughters of the evening' who guarded the tree's golden apples. Their dream-like expressions, and the autumnal coloring of their dresses, evoke the twilight world to which they belong.


Nothing came easily to him, but he struggled most over his portraits. He took enormous pains over the preparation of his palette and canvas, the posing of the sitter, and the arrangement of any props or draperies. Having made chalk marks on the canvas to indicate the highest and lowest points of the figure, he would take up a large brush with a handle two or even three feet in length, step right back and make his first, sweeping strokes.

Within an hour or so the broad outline of the portrait would be visible and he would begin the painstaking, and often interminable, the business of filling in the details. His brushes would become shorter, his strokes lighter, and the intervals between touches longer and longer.

To the frustration of his sitters, on whom he had no mercy, he would frequently rub out the entire effort of a grueling day. It is said that he began hundreds of portraits but in fact he finished very few.

He was partly hampered by having little natural skill for drawing the figure, particularly men's legs, but he was also defeated by his ambitious concept of the portrait, which was to deploy the human figure as a motif in a more or less abstract composition.

However, in the case o his most famous Arrangement, that of his mother, design and psychology are beautifully blended a simplicity of line, colour and facial expression.

In his Nocturnes he met with fewer difficulties though the process of painting was hardly toilsome. By painting the river and the city at night or in the twilight he was able to reduce the wharves and warehouses, boats and bridges, and even the people to simple patches of colour.

These could then be arranged to fulfil their part in a purely pictorial design. As he said himself of his Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow (1878), 'I care nothing for the past, present or future of the black figure, placed there because the black was wanted at that spot. All I know is that my combination of grey and gold is the basis of the picture.'

Before painting a Nocturne, he carefully mixed his colours, sometimes taking longer to get them exactly right than to execute the picture itself. He often diluted the paints so thinly they would run down the canvas.

In order to hold his 'sauce, he used very absorbent canvases which allowed him to create the impression of veils of colour, through which his shapes could emerge or recede.

In later life, Whistler painted a series of much smaller landscapes and seascapes, which he composed rapidly and on the spot, in contrast with his habitual method. Painting sometimes on wooden panels, he not only attained vigorous flexibility in his handling of paint but introduced bright, glowing colours. In these spontaneous little works, he came closer than any other 19th-century painter to anticipating the modern abstract.

the balcony painting by james mcneill whistler

Variations in Flesh Colour and Green:
The Balcony (1865) This lovely painting was inspired by Japanese prints. The late addition of the butterflies increases its decorative quality, and – like the flowers set against an unshaded blue ground - emphasizes the painting's flat surface.


Symphony in White, No. 1:
The White Girl

Whistler started painting The White Girl in December 1861, while he was living in Paris. The model was his mistress Joanna Heffernan, but the main subject of the painting is its subtle range of white color. Rejected by the Royal Academy, it was first shown in London in 1862, and then at the Salon des Refusés the following year, where it caused a furor. In London the painting was seen as an attempt to illustrate Wilkie Collins' recent novel The Woman in White; in Paris, it was interpreted as mourning lost innocence. But Whistler denounced such specific interpretations, and later prefixed the original title with Symphony in White, No. 1, making it the first of a series of paintings on this musical theme'. Symphony in White, No. 2 followed in 1864, and Symphony in White, No.3 -a study of three figures - in 1867.

symphony in white, no.1: the white girl painting by james mcneill whistler
symphony in white, no.1: the white girl painting by james mcneill whistler

A red-haired model:
Joanna Heffernan's red hair provides a perfect contrast to the subtle tones of the background, as Whistler implied in an enthusiastic description of the painting: 'The picture', he wrote, 'barring the red hair, is one gorgeous mass of brilliant white'.

symphony in white, no.1: the white girl painting by james mcneill whistler

Shades of white:
This detail shows the broken lily in the White Girl's hand - interpreted as a symbol of lost innocence. The flower, dress, and cuff are all subtle variations of the color white.

symphony in white, no.1: the white girl painting by james mcneill whistler

The bare-skin rug:
The tones and textures of the bear-skin rug, the blue of the carpet, and the color of the flowers all offset the white figure, while still harmonizing with the whole.

symphony in white, no. 2: the little white girl painting by james mcneill whistler

Symphony in White, No. 2:
The Little White Girl This poem by Swinburne was inspired by The Little White Girl and attached to its frame when it was shown at the RA.

symphony in white, no. 3 sketch by james mcneill whistler

Symphony in White, No.3:
Whistler sent this sketch to Fantin-Latour while the painting was underway. He indicated the colours in French, stressing the pale tones.

joanna heffernan sketch of whistler mistress jo

Joanna Heffernan:
This etching by Whistler shows his mistress Jo, who modelled for all three 'Symphonies'.


Whistler's paintings can be divided into two main subjects - portraits and landscapes or seascapes- but as their titles imply, their real theme is the harmony of color and composition.

The White Girl marked the beginning of a series of full-length female figure paintings which also includes La Princesse du pays.

As Whistler developed his ideas on design and colour, the decorative exoticism of these works gave way to the simplicity of the Painter's Mother. The light background, lack of detail and subtle range of tones set the style for later portraits such as Lady Meux and Théodore Duret. These are even simpler in composition and show Whistler's increasing mastery of a limited palette.

Whistler's preoccupation with color harmony is particularly evident in his Nocturnes – the most controversial works of his career. Grey and Gold - Westminster Bridge, and Grey and Gold - Chelsea Snow are essentially spaces filled with exquisitely graded tones of light and shapes arranged on the flat canvas.

la princesse du pays de la porcelaine painting by james mcneill whistler

La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine 1863-4:
The title of the painting links the female figure with the oriental blue-and-white porcelain which Whistler collected so avidly. The work was bought by Frederick Leyland and inspired the famous Peacock Room which Whistler decorated for Leyland's house in Prince's Gate, London.

arrangement in grey and black: portrait of the painte's mother painting by james mcneill whistler

Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother 1871
This famous portrait of Whistler's mother was painted while she was staying with him in London during the summer of 1871. The figure is shown in profile, the body flattened by the diffused lighting characteristic of Whistler's portraits, and held in place by the lines of the curtain, skirting board, and picture frames. Whistler later remarked: 'To me, it is interesting as a picture of my mother, but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait? It must stand or fall on its merits as an "arrangement".'

nocturne: grey and gold-chelsea snow painting by james mcneill whistler

Nocturne: Grey and Gold - Chelsea Snow 1876
In this night scene, snow, buildings, trees, and sky become abstract areas of light and dark, in a two-dimensional composition. The luminous snow and shadowy buildings are bridged by an anonymous figure - introduced because the design demanded a touch of black at that spot.

harmony in pink and grey: portrait of lady meux by james mcneill whistler

Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux 1881-2
New York The simplicity of this sensuous portrait and the subtle use of a range of tones show a new assurance in Whistler's painting. He began three portraits of Lady Meux but only finished two. The third seems to have been abandoned after a disagreement in 1886 when she suggested his paintings were not properly finished.


Art for Art's Sake

While Whistler explored the role of art and design in daily life, a self-conscious cult of beauty spread through Victorian society. Among the cultured 'aesthetes' was the legendary Oscar Wilde.

Whistler's insistence that his paintings should not tell a moral tale, but should be enjoyed for their own sake, made him one of the leading members of the Aesthetic Movement. In reality, however, there was no ‘movement and no members, only a social climate in which many people - from the Prince of Wales to the more enlightened members of the middle class - became aware of the importance of 'taste' in their daily lives.

For this cultured elite of the mid-19th century, art and beauty were to be enjoyed in every aspect of life, in the clothes they wore, the houses they lived in, and the china they ate off, as well as in the paintings they admired. While the rich and famous might have an elegantly simple house designed by the architect Edward Godwin (as Whistler did), the less well-off could indulge their aesthetic sensibilities by buying Japanese screens and oriental silks from the famous Liberty's store.

From 1875, Arthur Liberty's shop on Regent S Street was the focal point of aesthetic taste in London. Crammed full of oriental objects carpets, fans, screens, china, and fabrics - it was the popular haunt of baronets, and fashionable ladies - as well as artists like Whistler and Rossetti. The craze for Japanese artifacts, which began in England after the International Exhibition of 1862, became so great that Liberty had to import from China and Persia as well as Japan in order to satisfy the demand. He even persuaded English textile manufacturers to produce Eastern-style fabrics.

comic opera patience by gilbert and sullivan

A satirical opera:
In 1881, Gilbert and Sullivan presented their comic opera Patience which centered around a ridiculously camp young aesthete based in part on Oscar Wilde. The program features blue-and-white china and sunflowers: both symbols of Aestheticism.

my aesthetic love song cover page

Aesthetic excess:
My Aesthetic Love was one of the numerous songs which mocked the vogue for aestheticism. The lady sits contemplating a lily surrounded by her trendy aesthetic paraphernalia.

wild as a sunflower cartoon punch

Wilde as a sunflower:
Oscar Wilde deliberately cultivated his image as the personification of Aestheticism. With his long hair, poetic demeanor, and everpresent sunflower, he was an easy target for satire - especially since his poetry did not live up to his personality. A verse beneath this Punch cartoon reads: "Aesthete of Aesthetes! What's in a name? The poet is WILDE, But the poetry's tame'.


The new aesthetic cult soon gained widespread publicity. Just three years after Liberty opened his shop, a young Irishman arrived in London and deliberately exploited its appeal as a means of getting noticed. This was Oscar Wilde, who came down from Oxford in 1878 and was determined to make a name for himself. I'll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I'll be famous, and if not famous, I'll be notorious,' he declared. But although Wilde had won the Newdigate Prize for poetry at Oxford, in London his work was viewed as slight and derivative. To win the celebrity status that he craved, Oscar carefully manufactured his image as the most conspicuous aesthete of the day.
He wore his hair long; dressed in velvet coats with soft silk shirts and long flowing ties; and carried about with him the emblems of the Aesthetic Movement - sunflowers and lilies. And he mingled with the beautiful people, whom he dazzled with his wit and charm.

But the self-conscious nature of Wilde's public image made him a natural target for satire. George du Maurier, the caricaturist of Punch, had been satirizing Aesthetic tendencies since the early 1870s, and Oscar was soon lampooned - and easily identifiable - as the grandiose poet Postlethwaite. Then, in 1881, Gilbert and Sullivan presented a new comic opera entitled Patience, featuring a 'perfectly precious' young aesthete called Bunthorne - an amalgam of the artist Rossetti, the poet Swinburne and, of course, Oscar Wilde.

As one of Bunthorne's inspirers, Wilde was asked by the American promoter to make a 'personal appearance' lecture tour of the United States and Canada, to introduce transatlantic audiences to the ideas that would be satirized in Patience. Wilde leaped at this somewhat backhanded compliment, for he was always short of money, and was confident that he could subvert the idea behind the lecture tour to his own ends.

In the event, Wilde overcame initial ridicule and scored tremendous personal success as the apostle of Aestheticism. His audiences loved him, and instead of simply laughing at Patience, the opera's audiences admired the Liberty costumes.

Wilde and Whistler had become friends in 1881. They had acquaintances in common, they both lived in Tite Street, Chelsea, and they had certain solidarity in the face of hostility from Punch. And when Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884, Whistler's talents were enlisted to design a suitably beautiful interior for the Wilde family home.

Accordingly, an ordinary Victorian terraced house was aestheticized, eventually boasting a dining room done up in white, blue, and yellow, and a drawing room featuring white peacock feathers let into the ceiling. Constance Wilde was soon known as the 'Chatelaine of the House Beautiful and she and her husband presided over an elaborate series of receptions, with guests such as Arthur Balfour, Sarah Bernhardt, Mark Twain, and Lily Langtry.

Oscar also held a 'midday court at the fashionable Café Royal, in London's Piccadilly. Whistler frequently attended, though his attitude to Wilde was skeptical. And it was at one of the lunchtime gatherings that the most famous Wilde-Whistler exchange occurred. After a particularly witty remark by Whistler, Oscar said, 'I wish I had said that. To which came Whistler's acid response, You will, Oscar, you will.' The remark was said in earnest.

the peacock room by james mcneill whistler

The Peacock Room:
The peacock motif was one of the most pervasive aesthetic symbols. Whistler created the Peacock Room at vast expense; for the less well-off a few feathers would suffice.

picture of oscar wild
paintinf of the cafe royal london by charles ginner

Oscar Wilde and the Café Royal set:
The Café Royal in London's Piccadilly was a fashionable meeting place for artists, musicians, writers, and wits. Whistler was a frequent customer, and in his heyday, Oscar Wilde held a regular lunchtime salon there. His guests included George Bernard Shaw, and Aubrey Beardsley – as well as his constant companion 'Bosie'.


As a committed artist, Whistler had become increasingly galled by Wilde's opportunism. He saw him as the mere disseminator of an extremely diluted - and sometimes confused - version of his own ideas. And it irritated him that it had become trendy to own 'art' furniture and peacock feathers and to listen to Oscar Wilde.

In several respects Whistler's hostility was justified, for Wilde – the would-be-great literary figure - was still only a personality with pretensions. As yet he had written none of his great plays and when his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890, it was severely criticized for its decadence and alleged immorality. And soon, such criticisms were to be leveled against Wilde himself.

Though he had two sons with his wife, Wilde had always been more involved sexually and emotionally with men. In 1891, he began an ill-fated love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. He was totally infatuated with 'Bosie' and flouted public opinion by appearing everywhere in his company. When Bosie's eccentric and violent father took exception to the relationship, Wilde made the great mistake of prosecuting the 'mad marquess' for libel.

Wilde probably thought he could take the offensive, because of his strength as the leading comic playwright of the day - all of London now flocked to his plays. But his case against Queensberry backfired and he was bankrupted, then put on trial for homosexual offenses. In May 1895 he was found guilty and sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labor. Upon his release, he left England and died in France in 1900.

To the Victorian eye, the fall of Wilde was inextricably linked with the decadent excesses of 'art for art's sake. And though his trial had no direct bearings on the eclipse of the Aesthetic Movement, its date coincided with the opening of a new shop in Paris called Art Nouveau - the name of a new decorative style of art, which replaced Aestheticism and swept through Europe as the new century dawned.

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