Author(s): Frances Spalding
James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was one of the most original artists of the late 19th-century. Flamboyant dandy and ebullient publicist, friend of Oscar Wilde, Whistler was also a meticulous craftsman dedicated to the perfection of his art. He was born in the United States but travelled to Paris to study painting. Under the influence of Courbet, he began as a realist painter, but gradually developed a startlingly original method of composition, refining his technique to the barest essentials. He was one of the first to argue that the abstract ingredients of a painting - the lines, shapes, colours and tones - could in themselves be the subject; he entitled the portrait of his mother "Arrangement in Grey and Black". His emphasis on selection and swiftness of execution made a shocking contrast with the art of his day, concerned as it was with finish and elaborate literary allusions. Ruskin, the champion of Pre-Raphaelitism, accused him of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face" - a comment that promptly inspired the famous lawsuit which left Whistler victorious but bankrupt. Whistler was one of the most independent artists in the second half of the nineteenth century, comparable in stature with Degas. His "Nocturnes" create an indefinable mood of wistful poetry, while his portraits remain some of the most haunting images in nineteenth-century art.