Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Happy Birthday, James Whistler!

Whistler was born in Lowell, Mass., in 1834, and best known for his influence on artistic theory. Early on, Whistler was immersed in art. At the age of 11, he enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he did well, before moving back to London with his relatives in 1847.

Though his mother sent him to Christ Church Hall School with the hope that he would become a minister, Whistler felt that a career in religion was not for him. He applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where, though he was accomplished at drawing, his grades were poor and he flouted authority. After being dismissed from the academy, Whistler tried his hand at mapping the East Coast of the United States for military and maritime purposes, but was transferred to another division of the Coast Survey. He lasted only two months there before leaving for France to pursue art as his true calling.

Later in his career, Whistler became a leading proponent of “art for art’s sake,” an idea he shared with his friend and rival Oscar Wilde. He believed that art was not something that should strictly illuminate a moral purpose, but should instead serve as an extension of the artist’s persona and emotions. An example of his philosophy, the painting “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” was criticized heavily by the art critic John Ruskin. Whistler ended up suing Ruskin for libel. The artist won but he was only awarded a farthing (a quarter of a penny). The cost of the case and the debts accrued while building his residence caused Whistler to fall into bankruptcy midway through 1879.

"Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket"
James Whistler
Whistler continued to travel and produce art in Paris, London, and Venice. He went where he was commissioned, and his paintings sold well. He also published a book detailing his artistic ideals that, unfortunately, led to a complete breakdown of his friendship with Wilde. Whistler returned to London in 1896, when his wife was diagnosed with cancer; she died two months later. In the final years of his life, Whistler produced minimalist seascapes and corresponded with some of his old acquaintances. He founded an art school in 1898, but his poor health and infrequent teaching schedule led to its closure three years later. His health continued to decline and he died in 1903 on July 17.

The Georgia Museum of Art has a selection of Whistler’s art that highlights many of the qualities he worked to instill in his paintings. The canvases he produced act as his lasting contributions to artistic conversations and debates even today.  

"Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1"
James Whistler

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