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SISLEY by the Thames
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James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
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From the very start he experienced an exotic lifestyle, accompanying his parents to Russia where his father was a railway engineer and where he first indulged his artistic talents at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. This was followed by a period studying in Paris and at the West Point Military Academy in America. When Whistler arrived in London in 1859 he had already been living the life of a bohemian artist in the creative hothouse of Paris for several years, developing friendships with Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros (together they were known as the Société des Trois), also Courbet, Carolus-Duran and Manet amongst others. He met and was influenced by both Charles Baudelaire, the radical poet and thinker, and Théophile Gautier, a more Romantic literary figure. The first urged him to portray the brutal reality of modern life and the second may have encouraged Whistler to see parallels between music and the visual arts and both these strands are evident in his work.

For the rest of his life Whistler would divide his time between London and Paris, often courting controversy and always producing work of a distinctive nature. One of his first undertakings in London was a series of etchings called the Thames Set, a graphic collection of images reflecting everyday-life on the river. In London he would submit works to the Royal Academy and in Paris to the official Salon and rejection came from both giving him common cause with the new generation of French artists.

His rather rakish lifestyle in London was disrupted by the arrival of his mother in 1864 and he was obliged to move his mistress, the subject of his Symphony in White, No. 1 or The White Girl, to another address. He made a mysterious visit to Chile in 1866, maybe living with mother proved too much, and this inspired him to paint three night scenes of the harbour at Valparaiso which he later called Nocturnes. This led him to create several more similarly titled paintings over the coming years with the River Thames as the motif. It is in these images with their vaporous and insubstantial qualities that musical and poetic inspiration and the influence of Japanese prints can be most readily appreciated. His Nocturnes were joined by Harmonies, Symphonies, Studies and Arrangements and in these pictures can be seen ideas and techniques he shared with some of his French contemporaries in the ‘impressionist’ movement.

During the years of the Franco-Prussian War when Monet was taking refuge in London the two artists met, opening a creative dialogue that would continue for many years. It was also at this time that Whistler met Paul Durand-Ruel and submitted several works for exhibition. This introduced his innovative work to the French market and, unsurprisingly, this was not met with universal acclaim. Indeed, it put strain on his friendship with Fantin-Latour and Courbet and these negative reactions perhaps explain why Whistler declined to exhibit at the first Impressionist show in 1874 in spite of his growing friendship with Monet.

It was another of his Nocturnes and the infamous libel action that it provoked that dominated Whistlers life in the late 1870’s. Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, having been refused by the Royal Academy and it led John Ruskin, the eminent art critic, pillar of the establishment and champion of the work of Turner, to comment: “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. This was not just a spat over a style of painting but was tied up with a complex pantomime of social and sexual score-settling with faults on all sides. Whistler sued for libel and, always self-confident and egotistical, assumed that he would win with the support of his many friends in the art world. That support never materialised and although the court finally found in his favour the artist was only awarded one farthing in damages and had to pay half the enormous legal expenses. To an outside observer and seen at a considerable distance of time passed, it seems ironic that Ruskin, the promoter of Turner, especially his later work which so influenced Whistler, whether he cared to admit it or not, should be responsible for this debacle in the artist’s life.

Whistler’s finances as well as his social and professional standing were in ruins and he took refuge in Venice in the company of John Singer Sargent, another prodigious talent from his home country. Here he found his feet again both socially, in the company of the ex-patroit American community, and creatively. He worked hard to capture the essence of the city in a series of etchings, nocturnes, watercolours and over 100 pastels. This sojourn lasted over a year but he eventually returned to London where his reputation amongst a younger generation of artists started to re-establish him as an influential figure in the art world on both sides of the Atlantic, much to his satisfaction.

Even though he was still considered to be a controversial figure he joined the British Society of Artist’s in 1884 and was elected president in 1886. The following year he took a leading part in the presentation of an illustrated album to Queen Victoria to mark her golden jubilee and she was so impressed that she decreed that the society should be called the Royal Society of British Artists. Whistler’s combative, if not arrogant, attitude and ideas soon led to a major disagreement with the Royal Academy of Arts and once again he found himself at the centre of an unseemly row with the art establishment which ultimately led him to resign from the society.

In 1888, after a lifetime of carefree bachelorhood and a string of mistresses, he finally married Beatrice (Trixie) Godwin an ex-pupil and former wife of his architect. She brought a degree of respectability to the Whistler household which improved his prospects of commissions from wealthy patrons. However, his work continued to meet with a less than enthusiastic reception and in 1892 he decided to move to Paris where he found a warmer reception from his friends including Monet, Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec and the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. This fulfilling period in his life was overshadowed when it was discovered that Trixie had cancer and they returned to London in 1896 and took up residence at the Savoy Hotel with rooms overlooking the Thames. Monet was later to occupy these same rooms, probably at Whistler’s suggestion. Trixie died a few months later.

Whistler continued to paint and for a short time he ran an art school but his health was in decline and he died in 1903 at his London home in Cheyne Walk within sight of the Thames which had proved to be an enduring inspiration throughout his creative life, as it had for J.M.W. Turner who had ended his days half a century before only a few doors away.


FELLOW AMERICANS

Winslow Homer (1836–1910)

.The artists spent almost two years in England between 1881 and 1882 but most of that time was spent on the north east coast in the small village of Cullercoats, where he made numerous studies in both watercolour and oils of the day-to-day life of the fishing community. He only painted one watercolour of the Thames in London, probably made as he was passing through.

Frank Myers Boggs (1855–1926)
.Born in Ohio in 1855, Boggs trained at the École des Beaux-Arts under Jean Léon Gerôme and although he associated with the leading artists of the Impressionist movement his work retains some more formal resonances from his classical schooling. He lived most of his life in Paris but travelled quite widely and achieved recognition in the art world on both sides of the Atlantic.

Joseph Pennell (1857–1926)
.Known more as an illustrator, etcher and publisher, Pennell moved to London early in his career and made his home there. He became firm friends with Whistler and was to publish a biography of the artist in 1906. His illustrations of life in London’s Dockland are a vivid record of a way of life swept away by the tide of progress.

Childe Hassam (1859–1935)
.Following the accepted assumption that it was essential to spend some time in Paris to be taken seriously as a painter, Hassam immersed himself in the artistic life of the French capital between 1886 and 1889 and he stopped over in London on his return to the United States. He is often referred to as an American Impressionist and he certainly made the style popular with the buying public in the States.  He was to return to London in 1897, as part of a tour of Europe, and made a series of drawings, watercolours and oils which were included in the book Three Cities, a travelogue about New York, London and Paris.
Pictures
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