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James McNeill Whistler

James McNeill Whistler, the American-born painter-etcher, is quite possibly the most famous participant of the Etching Revival. Whistler was the embodiment of Baudelaire’s “flâneur,” one who found his artistic inspiration strolling the streets of European cities. After a stint at West Point, Whistler sought artistic training in Europe. In 1858, he began his career as an artist with the French Set, a group of twelve etchings of Paris and the French countryside. Moving to London in 1859, Whistler set to work exploring the area bordering the Thames River. The sixteen etchings of the Thames Set were published in 1871 and well received by the public.

In the late 1850s Whistler painted his first masterpiece, At the Piano (1860). Although rejected by the Paris Salon, it forecasts his mature painting style. His early works show an interest in Realism, in stark contrast to later work that verges on abstraction. In the mid-187os, Whistler began to paint his famous Nocturnes, which were atmospheric views of the Thames at night. Instead of signing these paintings, Whistler marked them with a butterfly, a personal symbol by an artist preoccupied with status and celebrity.

In 1878, Whistler left London for Venice after his financially devastating victory in the Ruskin vs. Whistler trial. He stayed in Venice for 14 months, producing numerous works, and accumulated like-minded artistic followers. His methods in sketching printing were both unusual and inventive, influencing artists including Seymour Haden, Joesph Pennell, Mortimer Menpes, and Otto Bacher.

During his final years, Whistler was constantly on the move, oscillating between London, Paris and Dieppe. In 1888, the artist married Beatrice, widow of architect E. W. Godwin. Whistler’s wife died of cancer in 1896. Although heartbroken, Whistler remained active in the art and social scenes of London and Paris. He was elected first President of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in 1898.

James McNeill Whistler was a new breed of artist. Central to his art and career was his personality. In dress and manner, Whistler presented the image of the immaculate dandy. He was both witty and explosively hostile to his critics, but thoughtful and caring in his work.

Whistler’s ideas about art, so eloquently expounded in his letters, lectures, and books, have been as influential as his art works. Countering the literal naturalism and didacticism of his time, Whistler encouraged artists to purify their art of morality and representational accuracy. Instead, Whistler was convinced that successful art was the result of organizing color and line into a formally satisfying and therefore beautiful whole. He saw beauty in the mundane. Instead of depicting the countryside, Whistler and the artists under his influence came to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the city and its inhabitants, especially under the mysterious guise of night.

- Tom Kracauer