James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was one of the most influential and innovative American artists of the late 19th century. The son of a New England (USA) railroad engineer, Whistler's family moved to St. Petersberg (Russia) in 1843, where Whistler lived a privileged life and began studies in 1845 at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Whistler's mother took the children to live in London in 1847, then returned to the USA after her husband's death from cholera in 1849. Whistler enrolled at West Point Military Academy in 1851 but was expelled in 1854 for conduct problems. He learned etching while working as a draughtsman for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, then moved to Paris in 1855, where he enrolled at the École Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin, studied intermittently at the studio of Charles Gleyre (1808-1874), a Swiss artist and teacher of several impressionists, copied artworks in the Louvre, and became an admirer of the Spanish painter Velázquez. Whistler became friends with artists such as Henri Fantin-Latour (1834-1904), Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Edouard Manet, and writers such as Charles Baudelaire and William Thackeray. He relocated to London in 1859 but made frequent visits to France. He led the revival of etching with his Twelve Etchings from Nature (the "French Set," 1858) and etchings of the Thames River (the "Thames Set," 1861). His paintings of the 1860's were controversial for their Courbet inspired realism, subdued colors, flat spaces, lack of narrative or rhetorical effect, and borrowings from Japanese decor and woodcut design. Despite the subdued and subtle quality of his art, he made his reputation as a provocative art critic, acerbic wit, and flamboyant dandy in the style of his friend Oscar Wilde (1854-1900); he lived lavishly and was often in debt. In the early 1860's Whistler met D.G. Rossetti and Albert Moore (1841-1893); with Moore he developed the tenets of "Art for Art's sake," titling his works after musical compositions to affirm that they should be seen for their abstract qualities, free of the literary or moral ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites. The shipping magnate F.R. Leyland backed Whistler's first one man exhibition in 1874, but Whistler's willfully exotic decorations for Leyland's London house (1876-77) lost Whistler money and his patron. When John Ruskin condemned his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket for "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face," Whistler brought and won a libel suit against Ruskin, but was ruined by his legal costs. Whistler traveled to Venice on a charitable commission from the London Fine Art Society, and the resulting 50 etchings and over 90 pastels, published in 1880-86 and widely exhibited, had considerable influence on American artists and resuscitated Whistler's fortunes. Thereafter he travelled widely in England and Continental Europe, exhibited in Europe and America, and devoted himself to revolutionizing art conventions and exhibition practices, first as president of the Society of British Artists in London (1887-88), then as the first president of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers (1898). In 1885 he delivered his esthetic creed in the famous, mock ecclesiastical "Ten O'Clock" lecture, published in 1888 and widely read among French artists in the translation by the poet and art critic Stéphane Mallarmé. Whistler married Beatrix, widow of E. W. Godwin, who worked beside him until her death by cancer in 1896. Whistler spent his last years destroying many early paintings and drawings from his Paris studio and working on a full length self portrait, Brown and Gold, which was displayed at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900 but continually revised up to Whistler's death in London in 1903, at age 69.

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Whistler had painted occasionally in watercolors earlier in his career, but he took up the medium seriously during his Venice sojourn, possibly stimulated by his experiments in color lithography. Few of his watercolors are dated, but his habitual watercolors production dates at least from 1884, when several watercolors were shown in his exhibition "Notes — Harmonies — Nocturnes" at Dowdeswell Gallery, London. Although a late starter, Whistler quickly mastered watercolor's potential for subtle color mixtures and atmospheric wet in wet effects. London Bridge (c.1885, 18x28cm) shows his mastery and characteristic style. The image is contained within a relatively small format, and designed as large areas of horizontal color. The color scheme is subtle and delicate, hinging on the contrast between the muted red orange of the bridge and the glimpse of grayed turquoise through the central arch. Color has been applied wet in wet, then charged with additional paint or water to create flowing, misty effects; additional light touches were made to the clouds and the bridge outline just as the paper dried. Whistler's brilliance lies in the way the water, boats, bridge traffic, distant masts and sky are all conveyed through suggestion rather than explicit statement. Called "mere hints and memoranda" by the critic P.G. Hamerton, these watercolors were influential for their decisive break from the Victorian strain of moralizing realism, and for their understated harmonies of composition and color.

In his catalog notes to the 1884 exhibition, Whistler announced that "a picture is finished when all trace of the means used to bring it about have vanished." He was taking aim at the conventional style of insanely detailed, ostentatiously labored canvases produced by artists as diverse as Miles Birket Foster, John Ruskin and John North. But I think he was also spurning the conventional style of portrait painting, with its moralizing symbols and absurd idealizations of age and character: these were for Whistler works that still showed the storytelling cliches used to design them. So the peculiar title of this watercolor, Rose and Silver: Portrait of Mrs. Whibley (1894, 27x18cm), is intended to put the visual design ahead of any platitudes about Whibley's character by directing our attention to the arrangement of a limited palette of colors. The black background accentuates the contours of hat and figure and Mrs. Whibley's fine profile. It also wittily divides the figure in two and detaches the head from the body by merging with the black lace flowing down the front of her dress. Muted grays and pinks make up the light parts of her form, which is delicately contrasted to the grayish chair, slightly brown floor and the near white of her face. This is a variation on the monochromatic study of near whites that was popular as an academic exercise in the 19th century, and which Whistler epitomized in his Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862), a portrait of his mistress Jo Heffernan. The message here is in the artificial mauve esthetic, which makes the viewer conscious of the devices that transform the individuality and beauty of a living woman into an esthetic image.

After 1880 Whistler turned increasingly to landscape, painted en plein air in both watercolors and oils on very small format supports. In these works Whistler seems to have attained something like peace with his art, for his working circumstances did not permit the relentless revisions that plagued much of his larger works, and the small format permitted him a radical economy of means. Beach Scene with Two Figures (c.1890, 13x21cm) is one of the most detailed of these late landscapes, but is for me one of the loveliest he ever did. The composition is again divided into three horizontal areas, each developed with different colors and brush textures. The sky is an evocative script of overlapping brushmarks, which mysteriously suggests many different types of clouds at once. The sea is a beautifully judged weave of horizontal brushstrokes, each carrying a slightly different energy and mixture of blue paint (notice how the color subtly darkens toward the horizon). White caps are suggested with brief squiggles of bodycolor. The two figures, briefly noted but full of life, add a sense of scale and human frailty in relation to the powerful sea — quite unlike the sentiment typical of Winslow Homer. The tinted paper provides a continuity of light between the beach and sky, and harmonizes with the dark rocks, whose color diffuses into the shallow surf lapping around them. In these late works Whistler took a large step toward the abstract painting styles of the early 20th century. Like a bitingly cold winter, Whistler's spare works and acerbic criticism blasted the sentimentally overgrown conventions of the late Victorians, and helped to prepare the flowering of impressionist and abstract art to come.

Whistler's watercolors have not been brought together in a single study, and examples are scattered across several different sources. Christopher Finch's American Watercolors (Abbeville Press, 1991) presents a good overview of the evolution of Whistler's style. Whistler: Landscapes and Seascapes by Donald Holden (Watson-Guptill, 1976) includes three watercolors not reprinted elsewhere, and a fine summary of Whistler's artistic evolution. Finally, Whistler's Venice by Alastair Grieve (Yale University Press, 2000) is well worth viewing for its superb historical background and reproductions of Whistler's remarkable pastels and engravings, which are in some respects the high point of his artistic career.