The wonderful world of Whistler

Famously charming and tempestuous, artistically innovative and independent, he's been described as the first contemporary artist – discover the wonderful world of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903).

A tour de force in the 19th-century art world, Whistler continues to dominate the era, partly due to his innovative talent, and partly as a result of his quarrelsome personality. His famously acrimonious relationships were often played out in the public domain. He even went so far as to publish a book compiling some of his retorts against critics and rivals entitled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890).

Refusing to be boxed into a single genre, he has been dubbed the forefather of abstraction, the old maverick, and the first contemporary artist, among many other titles. The wealth of contradictions around him have prompted endless explorations, publications and exhibitions which delve into the fascinating world of Whistler.

Portrait of James McNeill Whistler, unknown photographer, 1834 – 1909. Museum no. PH.1622-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A has an extensive collection of 164 works by the American-born artist. These include sets of etchings and lithographs depicting Whistler's family and friends, travels and his observations of street life and the working classes in London, Paris, Venice and Amsterdam. We also hold a small number of his watercolour sketches, his mahogany bed (rumoured to have once been owned by Napoleon) and four decorative panels from the staircase of 49 Prince's Gate, home of the celebrated Peacock Room, a decadent 19th-century interior painted by Whistler.

Self-portrait, etching, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1859. Museum no. 19799. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Early life

Born in 1834 in the rapidly expanding textile town of Lowell, Massachusetts, the first of many international moves came for the ambitious young Whistler at the age of nine. His father, George Washington Whistler, was a renowned engineer and moved the family to St. Petersburg, Russia in 1843 having won a contract to build railways for the Russian Tzar, Nicholas I. However, George contracted cholera and died six years later, so the family returned to the US, with James stopping off in England on the way. He lived briefly with his half-sister's family, the Seymour Hadens, in London's Sloane Street. The family were print collectors and amateur etchers with a printing press in their attic. They encouraged Whistler's burgeoning interest in art and posed for some of his first portraits when he returned to England a decade later.

The French Set

Drawn in London, this portrait of the artist's niece was part of 'Douze eaux-fortes d'après Nature' (Twelve Etchings from Nature), better known as 'The French Set', his first of 11 published suites of etchings.

Annie, etching, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1858, England. Museum no. 19812. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This first set also contained views of tenement buildings in France and portraits of French working women, including La Rétameuse (The Tinker), shown with a weaver's shuttle tucked into her waistband.

La Rétameuse, etching, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1858, France. Museum no. 19805. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 1850s saw the young artist complete his education and cultivate his infamous rebellious streak. Expelled from the West Point military academy in 1854, he quit the US for Paris in 1855 in search of 'la vie bohème' (the bohemian life). After enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts, he began to gather a circle of artist friends including Edward Poynter (who would go on to design the decorative schemes of the V&A café in the 1860s) and the writer George du Maurier, who would later savagely satirise Whistler as the character Joe Silbey in his best known novel, Trilby (1894).

Design for a panel for the South Kensington Refreshment Room, Edward Poynter, 1869, England. Museum no. 7917B. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Whistler had a reputation for both charm and tempestuousness, winning people over before often managing to ostracise them. After a dinner with artists Alphonse Legros and Henri Fantin-Latour in 1858, they were so impressed by Whistler that they disbanded another newly founded artist's group to form the Societé des Trois with him. The trio were galvanised by an exhibition at the Realist painter François Bonvin's studio in 1859, comprised of works Bonvin believed should not have been rejected by the Paris Salon, the official art exhibition at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

It wasn't until 1863 that the trio seriously made a splash at the notorious Salon des Refusés of that year. Set up by Emperor Napoleon III to placate contemporary artists whose styles did not please the official jury, the Salon de Refusés effectively created a platform for the avant-garde. Within a short time, it was more popular than the stuffy official Salon, as growing interest in Realism, Impressionism, and other new genres captured the public imagination. Whistler exhibited Symphony in White, No. 1 (1862), depicting his lover, the artist and model Joanna Hiffernan, who also posed regularly for the Realist painter Gustave Courbet. In a letter written to Fantin-Latour in 1867, Whistler, who had once sung Courbet's praises, ended up denouncing him and "that damned Realism", lamenting that he had never managed to employ the recently deceased Neo-classicist, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, as his teacher. This was a considerable about-turn for an artist nestled in the centre of the Paris avant-garde.

As their stars individually rose, the necessity to remain part of the Societé des Trois waned. After approximately 10 years of existence, the group came to a natural end. A dramatic year for Whistler, in 1867 he also fell out with Legros and others in his circle, promising to never again submit any paintings to the Salon or French exhibitions of any kind, a promise he held until 1882.

The Thames Set

Whistler had been living primarily in London since 1859 which would form the inspiration for his second set of etchings, 'The Thames Set', published as a series of 16 prints in 1871. Consisting of scenes of industrial life on the river, some of the prints depicted warehouse structures and bridges, whilst others focussed on the working men. The Thames was teeming with life in constant motion, and Whistler wrote in a letter of 1861 that "I assure you that I have never attempted such a difficult subject". One of the prints, showing two unnamed boatmen smoking long clay pipes, was supposedly drawn from The Angel pub, which still stands at Bermondsey Wall East, with St. Paul’s Cathedral visible on the horizon.

Rotherhithe, etching, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1860, England. Museum no. CAI.139. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another, The Lime Burner, depicts William Jones amongst the tools of his trade at his premises at 241 – 242 Wapping High Street, with the river visible through the back of the room. At the time this section of the waterway, where kilns were used to burn limestone for use in building and pottery manufacturing, was aptly known as Lime Wharf. The process was highly toxic, dangerous and dirty, like many of the tanneries and other riverside businesses.

The Lime Burner, etching, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1859, England. Museum no. CAI.150. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Peacock Room

At the other end of the spectrum, Whistler was designing grand plans for exquisite decorative schemes, the most famous being Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, for the Kensington house of shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. The original commission was to create the decorative scheme for the entrance hall and five-story staircase at 49, Prince's Gate, (four panels of which were given to the V&A in 1935 by the artist Leonard Raven-Hill). Though this was thoroughly overshadowed by the giddy heights of opulence Whistler reached in The Peacock Room, a dining room lavishly painted in blue and gold and decorated with peacocks.

Left to right: The Peacock Room decorated by Whistler, 49 Princes Gate, London, photograph by Harry Bedford Lemere, 1892, England. Museum no. 240-1926. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Panels from the hall/stairway of 49 Prince's Gate, decorated by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1876, England. Museum no. W.35-1922. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The 1870s also saw the arrival of Whistler's famous Nocturnes which would explore a mistier and more evocative view of the city at night. Initially calling them 'moonlights', he was the first to apply the term nocturne to painting and printmaking, appropriating it from the music world where it describes a quiet melodic composition with a tendency for gloominess. Inspiring the Tonalist school of painters in America, he was quick to point out in a letter to his friend, the artist Walter Greaves, "Now look, suppose you were to see any other fellows doing my moonlights – how vexed you would be – You see I invented them – Never in the history of art had they been done".

Nocturne: the River at Battersea, lithograph, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1878, England. Museum no. E.1517-1905. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Libel and bankruptcy

The opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in Bond Street, 1877, provided a display space for Whistler's experimental new paintings and a home for the burgeoning Aesthetic Movement more widely. The sensual 'Art for Art’s Sake' crowd in London had been excluded from exhibiting at the conservative Royal Academy, echoing the ostracisation of artists from the modern schools in Paris.

Portrait of John Ruskin, photograph by Frederick Hollyer, 1894, England. Museum no. 7602-1938. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Grosvenor Gallery provided the backdrop for one of the most famous legal battles the art world has ever seen after the noted art critic John Ruskin published a pamphlet accusing Whistler of "ill-educated conceit…for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face". Ruskin believed the painters from the modern schools should not be encouraged, adding "their eccentricities are almost always in some degree forced and their imperfections gratuitously if not impertinently indulged".

Whistler brought a libel case against Ruskin and won, however he only received a farthing in damages. His finances and reputation were left in tatters and his relationship with Frederick Leyland ended in a bitter quarrel in the same year. Leyland refused to pay up following the Peacock Room's swollen budget, and Whistler blamed Leyland as the chief culprit in his bankruptcy. Their feud inspired Whistler to paint a vengeful caricature of Leyland, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre, 1879, depicting his former friend and patron as a hideous, money-hungry peacock.

The Venice Sets

Escaping to Venice in 1879 – 80, Whistler was keen to get away from the pressures and the bridges he had burned in London. He threw himself back into etching, creating two Venice sets commissioned by the Fine Art Society, London. They expected him to be back with the plates for printing within three months but he stayed in the city for 14 months, producing a much larger volume of work than anticipated.

The Piazetta, etching, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1880, Italy. Museum no. E.3042-1931. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Whistler's view of San Marco with flocks of pigeons in flight would be recognised by every visitor to Venice. He also captured palazzos on the Grand Canal and several murkier backwaters such as a view of a carpenter's doorway drawn from a boat on the Rio de la Fava. Chairs in the midst of being repaired can be seen hanging from the ceiling inside.

The Doorway, etching, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1879 – 90, Italy. Museum no. CIRC.168-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Amsterdam Set

The final set was 'The Amsterdam Set' of 1889 – 1890, perhaps the most complex and densely worked of his entire career. Indeed, he commented to the Fine Art Society that "I find myself doing far finer work than any that I have hitherto produced". He travelled there with his new wife, Beatrice Godwin, who was an artist also and recently widowed by the architect Edward Godwin.

The Embroidered Curtain, etching, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1889, the Netherlands. Museum no. CIRC.75-1969. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Embroidered Curtain is probably the best known of the Amsterdam etchings, showing the facade of late 17th century buildings at number 52 ­– 54 Palmgracht. Shortly afterwards, the canal was filled in, but the tiles above the ground-floor windows denoting the trades of the occupants are still in situ. In April 1890, a set of the Amsterdam etchings was exhibited at Robert Dunthorne's gallery in London, where the playwright George Bernhard Shaw saw them, remarking that they were "the most exquisite renderings by the most independent man of the century".

A Napoleonic bed

Whistler's wife died in 1896 whereupon her sister Rosalind became a secretary to Whistler and the executor of his will. In 1931, she generously gave a historic mahogany bed to the V&A which Whistler had owned. Legend has it that Emperor Napoleon I was the original owner of the bed, gifting it to the French courtier Comtesse Louise-Charlotte de Montesquiou-Fézensac in recognition of her services as a governess to his son, Napoleon II. It came into Whistler's possession via her great-grandson, the noted dandy, poet and patron of the arts, Robert de Montesquiou, after he commissioned a portrait entitled Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, 1891 – 92. They also fell out acrimoniously after Whistler discovered the portrait had been sold some years later (it is now in The Frick Collection, New York City). In France, this shape is known as a 'lit en bateau' (a boat-bed), and the watery theme is extended here by the four finials (decorative knobs) in the shape of swans' heads.

Whistler's bed, maker unknown, 1800 – 20, France. Museum no. W.27:1 to 6-1933. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Whistler's legacy

In his final years, Whistler devoted himself to a brief period of teaching at his short-lived art school, the Académie Carmen, open for just three years from 1898 to 1901. Students included the Welsh portraitist Gwen John and a number of American Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists training in Paris, such as Frederic Clay Bartlett and Alice Pike Barney. Whilst the school did not last, Whistler had imparted a great deal of his knowledge to his assistants over the course of his career, many of whom became noted artists in their own right, such as Mortimer Menpes and Walter Sickert. Both artists are also well represented in our collections.

Left to right: The Old Bedford, etching, Walter Sickert, 1915 – 16, England. Museum no. E.2562-1948. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Market Place, Cairo, etching, Mortimer Menpes, about 1912, Egypt. Museum no. E.2487-1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Whistler's great legacy also touched other creative processes such as the Pictorialism school of photography. Categorised by atmospheric, dream-like and often out-of-focus images, the genre lends itself well to the nocturnal, with artists like Paul Martin using the word 'nocturne' in some of his 1880s compositions, as a nod to Whistler.

Nocturne on the Thames, photograph, by Paul Martin, 1880 – 90, England. Museum no. RPS.5058-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many works by Whistler in our collection can be viewed in our Prints and Drawings Study Room.

You can explore an archive of Whistler's correspondence at the University of Glasgow.

Find out about contemporary artist Darren Waterston's Filthy Lucre installation, a reinterpretation of Whistler's Peacock Room.

Header image:

Self-portrait, etching, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1859. Museum no. 19799. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London