"I shall be born when and where I want" - The American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler


11 July 1834, the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Mass., and not in St Petersburg, despite his understandable claim "I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell”
 
“The masterpiece should appear as the flower to the painter—perfect in its bud as in its bloom—with no reason to explain its presence—no mission to fulfill—a joy to the artist, a delusion to the philanthropist—a puzzle to the botanist—an accident of sentiment and alliteration to the literary man.” (James McNeill Whistler, “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies“)  

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Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen


Creating art for art’s sake under the influence of French Realism sounds like something along the lines of an oxymoron.  Nevertheless, one of the foremost painters of Realism, Gustave Courbet, and a master aesthete, James McNeill Whistler, were great friends once, and Whistler’s own approach on painting, later dubbed “tonalism” benefitted quite a lot from the Realist movement. “Tonalists” created works of art with methods that were simply anathema to the up-and-coming impressionists, a dark palette with predominantly black and brown hues, form over colour, emphasizing on mood and shadow, as if a Romantic painter had hung out too long in a Parisian café with a circle of Symbolists. And Charles Baudelaire. It was Baudelaire who had brought the idea of nature’s profound unsentimental and amoral alignment closer to Whistler and the artist’s final idea of creating a world of artistic beauty arranged on principles beyond mere human sensitivities and moral or political principles. His Realist friend Courbet missed the connection. But he and Whistler had fallen out anyway over the affections of their mutual muse Joanna Hiffernan.
 
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Arrangement in Grey and Black 1871 – in short: Mother!


Vainglorious Whistler aptly chose a butterfly with a sting as his symbol and signed his paintings with it. And few artists of renown mastered a multitude of influences with such a perfection as Whistler did. From an education at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg (the one in Russia), rural Connecticut, West Point and getting fired from there by Robert E. Lee in person, working as map maker and drawing sea serpents and mermaids on the maps’ borders, living the vie de la bòheme in Paris and London, together with Pre-Raphaelites, Symbolists, Realists and whatnot, becoming, almost as a sideline, a master printmaker, naming and composing his works after musical terminology, working up the influence of Japanese prints as well as naturalist paintings, dragging Ruskin into a trial and being wittier than young Oscar Wilde, Whistler was a total artwork all by himself. And creating an archetypical image by painting his mother as Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 that ranks in recognition value alone with the “Scream” and the “Mona Lisa”.

Depicted below is Whistler’s self-portrait, humbly named like Rembrandt’s masterpiece from 1628, “The Artist in his Studio” (1865/66), firing a broadside of influences at the spectator, from Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” and the mirrors, Japanese prints, scrolls, screens and Chinese porcelain to his two muses, one dressed in oriental style, probably La Hiffernan, and one in Western muse’s garb.

“The Artist in his Studio” (1865/66)