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James McNeill Whistler
A lesson in making enemies

Portrait of James McNeill Whistler

A petulant, lazy youth

James Abbot McNeill Whistler was a privileged child, a moody teen and an utter wastrel as a young man. He would’ve made a good millennial. As a young boy, James was prone to temper tantrums that only drawing could calm. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and in James’s wealthy family, his preoccupation with drawing was doted on and praised. The son of a railroad engineer, James had the amazing fortune to be educated in art-making in four countries. At age 8, his family moved from Massachusetts to St. Petersburg Russia, where James learned portraiture and life drawing at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts and at fourteen he moved to London, where he learned watercolors and etching from the engraver Sir Francis Haden.

On his return to the United States, young James was granted admittance to the West Point military academy on the strength of his family name. He immediately proved himself a sloppy dresser, with a dismissive attitude and poor grades. But his talent was undeniable, and after his expulsion from the program, James was hired as a draftsman and map-maker for the U.S. military—a job he promptly lost through tardiness and a habit of drawing sea serpents in the margins of the maps. At 21, James said goodbye to America forever, and moved to Paris to paint, drink, smoke cigarettes, and revel in bohemian drama.

Controversy is the best promotion

“Besides being a Master of the Brush, Pencil, and Etching Needle, and pretty handy with his Pen, Mr Whistler was a Master of the great art of attracting attention.” — Don C. Seitz

Whistler’s talent is undeniable. He mastered oils, engraving, lithography and even early photography—proof his dedication to his work. Arthur Eddy, who sat for a portrait by Whistler described his authoritative technique, “He worked with great rapidity and long hours…it was as if the portrait were hidden within the canvas and the master by passing his wands day after day over the surface evoked the image.” And Whistler’s theory of art was also demanding. Influenced by a love of music, he pioneered the ‘tonalist’ practice of flooding images with unifying colors, creating compositions that oozed atmosphere and influenced the developing Impressionist movement.

But Whistler didn’t just know how to make art—he knew how to posture. He was a short man, thin, unhealthy, and continually in debt, but Whistler’s wit was as sharp as his engraving needles. Every show of his work was followed by a battle in the press. Critics loved to hate him, and Whistler countered each vindictive review with his bitter response. Over the course of his career, Whistler created and destroyed a friendship with Oscar Wilde, sued the famous art critic John Ruskin for libel, and alienated Gustave Courbet by hooking up with their mutual muse Joanna Hiffernan.

While Whistler’s art was sensitive and stunning, his career a parade of vitriol and drama, which came to a head in 1890 with the publication of his first book. The Gentle Art of Making Enemies is a strange volume. It collects Whistler’s lifetime of banter, arguments, and criticism into a single noisy pile. The majority of the volume are poor reviews of his own art. Critics misunderstanding and reviling Whistler’s work. His brilliant and barbed letters to Wilde are there, and the full transcript of his legal battle with Ruskin.

Whistler’s signature was not his name, it was a sketch of a butterfly with a barbed tail. He knew what he was. A spoiled brat, a masterful artist and a social kick-boxer. Love him or hate him, Whistler reminds us: don’t dismiss the haters, profit from them.


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Reed Enger, "James McNeill Whistler, A lesson in making enemies," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 25, 2016; last modified November 08, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/james-mcneill-whistler/.

James McNeill Whistler was a U.S. Tonalist Artist born on July 11, 1834. McNeill Whistler contributed to the Post-Impressionist movement, worked in Russia, France and England and died on July 17, 1903.

Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl, James McNeill Whistler

Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl 1862

Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf, James McNeill Whistler

Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf 1864 – 1868

Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, James McNeill Whistler

Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 1871

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket 1875

Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge 1872 – 1875

Nocturne, James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne 1870 – 1877

The Peacock Room, James McNeill Whistler

The Peacock Room 1877

Listen! There never was an artistic period. There never was an Art-loving nation. In the beginning, man went forth each day—all that they might gain and live, or lose and die.

Art is not a slave of culture 1878

Maud Seated, James McNeill Whistler

Maud Seated 1878

Nocturne: The Thames at Battersea, James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne: The Thames at Battersea 1878

Art should be independent of all clap-trap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like.

The Red Rag 1878

Note in Pink and Brown, James McNeill Whistler

Note in Pink and Brown 1880

The Doorway, James McNeill Whistler

The Doorway 1880

Variations in Violet and Grey—Market Place, Dieppe, James McNeill Whistler

Variations in Violet and Grey—Market Place, Dieppe 1885

The Sisters, James McNeill Whistler

The Sisters 1894

Mother of Pearl and Silver: The Andalusian, James McNeill Whistler

Mother of Pearl and Silver: The Andalusian 1888 – 1900

Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt, James McNeill Whistler

Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt 1897 – 1903

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