James Abbott McNeill Whistler is regarded as one of the greatest nineteenth-century American-born painters. Though born in Lowell, Massachusetts, he spent much of his working career in England. He was apparently so annoyed with having been born in America that he once claimed in court that he was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. On that occasion he stated that "I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell." Whistler was indeed such an eccentric. He was not too far off the mark, however. When Whistler was a young boy, his father went to work on a railroad in Russia. The family followed him a year later. Young Whistler was a temperamental child, often sickly, and with a distinct artistic ability. While in Russia his parents enrolled him in private art lessons. After a short while his instructor recommended he enroll in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Whistler was only eleven years old at the time. At the academy, the young artist began to blossom, fully engaged in his studies and rejoicing at the opportunity of being in the company of peers.
Later, Whistler, his mother, and siblings, went to London to stay with relatives. In 1848, his father died from cholera, and the family returned to the United States. His mother, despite her earlier support of his interest in art, encouraged her son to become a minister. He balked against such a suggestion, and applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point. His father had once taught drawing there. A number of his relatives had attended the school as well, so his acceptance was assured, despite the academy's concern over his poor health, artistic temperament and known eccentricities. The school's reticence proved correct, and within three years, consistent poor grades, and inappropriate behavior required his withdrawal from West Point.
Whistler returned full time to his love of art. He relocated to Paris, where he established one of his predominant techniques: a focus on line rather than color, and the importance of black in a given work of art. These ideas flew in the face of the budding Impressionist movement in France, but Whistler was and would always be a rebel. Later, he traveled to England to work, and even to South America. Perhaps his most famous work, titled Arrangement in gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother (commonly known as "Whistler's Mother"), was created in 1871. The painting took many sittings and patience from his mother to complete.
During the late 1870s, Whistler famously sued art critic John Ruskin, and he fell out completely with anyone or anything associated with the English art world. He spent part of his later years working in Venice. He never married, but had a famous, torrid, and lengthy affair with English author, Oscar Wilde. He enjoyed being the life of the party and using his barbed sarcasm and wit on anyone in his company. As a contemporary once wrote, "Whistler was an inimitable host. He loved to be the Sun round whom we lesser lights revolved...All came under his influence, and in consequence no one was bored, no one dull."
Image: Alfred Sisley.