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James McNeill Whistler

(1834—1903) painter and printmaker

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American painter and etcher, active mainly in England, where he was one of the key artistic figures of his period. He was celebrated as a wit and a dandy as well as an artist and he loved controversy. His art is in many respects the opposite of his often aggressive personality, being discreet and subtle, but the creed that lay behind it was radical. He believed that painting should exist for its own sake, not to convey literary or moral ideas, and he often gave his pictures musical titles to suggest an analogy with the abstract art of music: ‘Art should be independent of all claptrap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic 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”.’ He was a laborious and self-critical worker, but this is belied by the flawless harmonies of tone and colour he created in his paintings, which are mainly portraits and landscapes (including many views of the Thames). His work is related to Impressionism (although he was more interested in evoking a mood than in accurately depicting the effects of light) and to Symbolism, and it was strongly influenced by Japanese art, but his exquisite taste allowed him to combine disparate sources in a novel, almost abstract synthesis.

In his book Modern Painting (1893) George Moore gives a good indication of Whistler's importance in turn-of-the-century British art: ‘More than any other painter, Mr Whistler's influence has made itself felt in English art. More than any other man, Mr Whistler has helped to purge art of the vice of subject and belief that the mission of the artist is to copy nature.’ He was a magnetic personality and had a powerful impact on the life and work of many of his contemporaries. Those who were most immediately influenced by him included his pupils Walter Greaves, Gwen John, and Walter Sickert, together with his laudatory biographer Joseph Pennell (1857–1926).

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