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James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Born: Lowell, MA , 11 July 1834
Died: London, 17 July 1903
Nationality: American

son of a railway engineer


with Alexander O. Karitzky at Imperial Academy of Science (St Petersburg, Russia); US Military Academy (West Point, NY); Ecole Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin (Paris); with Charles Gleyre (Paris)


1851 – enters US Military Academy, West Point, NY

1854 – expelled from West Point for poor grades; joins US Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, DC

1855 – experiments with lithography; returns to Europe

1858 – forms Société des Trois with artists Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros; meets Gustave Courbet

1859 – At the Piano rejected by Paris Salon jury; settles in London; begins series Sixteen Etchings of the Thames - Whistler publishes many etchings series throughout his life

1860 – exhibits At the Piano at Royal Academy (RA, London); exhibits at RA often throughout career

1861 – Symphony in White No. 1, the White Girl rejected by the RA jury

1863 – exhibits Symphony in White No. 1, the White Girl at Salon des Refusés (Paris)

1867 – exhibits Wapping at Exposition universelle (Paris)

1872 – commissioned to decorative F.R. Leyland’s dining room: Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

1874 - first one-man exhibition - at Flemish Gallery (London)

1877 – exhibits Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket in Grosvenor Gallery’s first exhibition; sues John Ruskin for libel for his negative comments

1878 – awarded damages of one farthing in Ruskin trial; publishes Art and Art Critics

1883 – exhibits with Impressionist painters at Galerie Georges Petit in Paris (also in 1887); elected to Society of British Artists

1884 – exhibits with Les XX (Brussels); solo exhibition, ‘Notes’—‘Harmonies’—‘Nocturnes’, at Dowdeswell’s Gallery (London)

1885 – delivers ‘Ten o’clock lecture’ on 20 February

1898 – elected president of International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Engravers


St Petersburg, Russia (1843-48); London (1848-49; 1859-92; 1903); New York and Washington (1849-55); Paris (1855-59; 1892-99); Germany (1858); Valparaiso, Chile (1866); Venice (1880)

Commissions from: 

F.R. Leyland; Fine Art Society; Sir Henry Meux; Charles Lang Freer

Important Artworks: 

At the Piano, 1859 (Taft Museum, Cincinnati)

Wapping, 1867 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1872 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room , 1872 (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-75 (Tate, London)

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875 (Detroit Institute of Art)



Whistler considered painting analogous to music:

“Nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful – as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony. To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sig on the piano. That Nature is always right, is an assertion, artistically, as untrue, as it is one whose truth is universally taken for granted. Nature is very rarely right, to such an extent even, that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong: that is to say, the condition of things that shall bring about the perfection of harmony worthy a picture is rare, and not common at all. This would seem, to even the most intelligent, a doctrine almost blasphemous. So incorporated with our education has the supposed aphorism become, that its belief is held to be part of our moral being, and the words themselves have, in our ear the ring of religion. Still, seldom does Nature succeed in producing a picture.”

James McNeill Whistler, “Mr Whistler’s ‘Ten O’Clock,’” in Denys Sutton, James McNeill Whistler (London: Phaidon, 1966), 53.


Web resources

Metmuseum: Whistler

smarthistory: Whistler, Nocture in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket

smarthistory: Whistler, Symphony in White No. 1: the White Girl