Thursday, February 5, 2009

James Abbott McNeill Whistler – 1834-1903

Born in America and educated at West Point, James McNeill Whistler was an expatriate living in Europe his entire adult life. He was a legendary character, cynic and artistic revolutionary in Victorian London (and Paris), counting among his friends Monet, Degas and Rodin. Whistler was a real “painter’s painter, whose ideas and work influenced many leading painters of his day including John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase.

Of course, he was best known for his portraits, particularly Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother (“Whistler’s Mother”). His mature work, the lesser known small plein air paintings, anticipated abstraction and shocked his Victorian audience at least as much, if not more than, his outrageous behavior.

These small pochade box oil paintings (some of my all-time favorites), done on wooden panels, are about 5” x 9” in size. The paint application is fluid and the brushwork deliberate, deft, direct and spare. For such a flamboyant personality these remarkably modest and unassuming little paintings stand in stark contrast.

Fortunately for us in America, Charles Lang Freer, a Detroit industrialist, became Whistler’s most important collector. Consequently most of these little gems are in the collection of the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian.

- Carl Judson

References –

Whistler: Landscapes and Seascapes Donaly Holden, Watson-Guptill, New York, 1976, 88 Pages, 11x10 1/4, 32 color plates, paperback

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