Friday, July 11, 2014

James McNeil Whistler and Color

This was the first painting purchased by the Louvre by an American painter!

James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) is one of my favorite artists because he was an experimenter, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. His life was colorful and certainly out of the ordinary.

An American by birth, he attended West Point Military Academy and was released after his artistic wiles caused problems for him and the administration. He obtained a job as a cartographer with the U.S. government and was fired from his job when his cartoons on the edges of maps were discovered. He was educated in France and lived as a painter and etcher in London for most of his life.

The body of his works present a wealth of tonal harmonies and is of particular interest to interior designers because they focus on soft shades rather than specific hues, using whitened and grayed colors in cool and warm tints.

Whistler's style stirred considerable notoriety in his day. In 1877, the art critic John Ruskin denounced Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold---The Falling Rocket. Ruskin accused him of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler took him to court. The attack was directed less at Whistler's color sense that at his broad, scumbling brushstrokes and evanescent forms merging in and out of the background that foreshadowed Monet's Water Lilies by nearly fifty years. Whistler is considered today as a subtle colorist skilled at exploring luminosity and tonal variations; his palette is not at all shocking. Some art historians claim he is the first "modern" artist.

In a lecture in 1885, Whistler described looking to nature to create his harmonies: The lessons which Nature presents to the artist alone are of quite a different character. He looks at her flower with the light of one who sees in her choice selection of brilliant tones and delicate tints, suggestions for future harmonies."

He was a devotee of Japanese art, and his palette was influenced by the soft tints of the ukiyo-e prints that began trickling into western Europe after Commodore Perry dropped anchor in Tokyo Bay in 1853. Above all, Whistler accurately captured the fashionable, delicate tints and off-shades of mauve, green, yellow and white praised in Gilbert and Sullivan operas as "greenery-yallery" or "cob-webby gray" that were replacing the brilliant Victorian maroons, purples and blacks in women's dress toward the end of the 19th century.

It's the birthday today of the artist best known for a painting of his mother: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, born in Lowell, Massachusetts (1834). His most famous painting was titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), but it's more commonly known as "Whistler's Mother." It's a portrait of Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler in a black dress, seated in profile against a gray wall. When Whistler's scheduled model didn't show up for a sitting, he decided to paint his mother instead. (Written by Garrison Keillor)  

For more information on this colorful artist's life, see Wikipedia. To see more of his art, see the site:

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