James Abbot McNeill Whistler was born in America, yet he spent much of his life abroad. Early years were spent in Russia and then in London, only moving back to America with his family out of necessity when his father died of cholera.
While a child in Russia, Whistler had attended drawing classes, but it wasn't until 1855 after dropping out of West Point Military Academy that he embarked on an artistic career. He moved back to Europe from America, settling in Paris.
This was the beginning of a lifetime commitment to art. He quickly made his presence felt due to his flamboyant, eccentric ways. He would go about Paris wearing a straw hat, a white suit, highly polished black patent leather shoes and a monocle.
While in France Gustave Courbet, the Realist painter, was an early influence on his art. He then moved to London in 1859 where he discovered, and made etchings of, what was to be one of his favourite subjects, the River Thames.
In London he met Joanna Heffernan, a captivating red-head. She modelled for him and was his companion for the following seven years. Joanna is seen in the controversial Symphony in White, No1: The White Girl.
The works which followed had similar design themes of harmony and composition, some were quite decorative. The subjects were often full-length female figures.
Whistler drew parallels between his artwork and music, classing his paintings as 'arrangements' and 'symphonies' often titling them thus. He once said "As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or colour."
Whistler's belief was that art should be enjoyed for its own sake and not tell a moral tale, be judgemental or self-conscious. His works were intended purely to be aesthetically pleasing and he was concerned solely with what could be seen on the surface of the canvas - patterns, colour and the play of light and shade.
In 1863 Whistler's mother moved to England to be with her son. In 1871 his style moved towards greater simplicity when he painted 'Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother'. The figure sits in profile on a light background. The horizontal lines of the skirting boards are what holds the the elements in place. The only decoration seen in the light dabs of paint defining a pattern on the curtain.
After Joanna disappeared from his life his mood changed somewhat with bouts of aggression making him quite difficult to deal with. He painted his 'Nocturnes' series. Though few were sold Whistler felt these paintings were the pinnacle of his career. He was plunged into financial despair when a lawsuit against the art critic John Ruskin, who had scathingly attacked 'Nocturne in Black and Gold', left him deeply in debt. Ruskin had accused Whistler of 'flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public'. Although Whistler won the case, compensation for his financial losses was not forthcoming and his already doubtful reputation was in tatters.
After declaring himself bankrupt Whistler moved to Venice with his then mistress Maud Franklin. His work during this period consisted mainly of etchings.
An exhibition held on his return to London in 1880 brought him back into the public eye and restored his reputation somewhat. Commissions grew and finally he was gaining respect for his talent and abilities.
In 1888 Whistler married Beatrix Goodwin, his 'Trixie'. Beatrix was probably his first real love. Their marriage was, it seemed, a happy one and with success and love in his life, Whistler mellowed somewhat. Unfortunately after finally finding love, tragedy was in store as Beatrix fell ill from cancer. She died at their home in Hamstead Heath in May 1896. He was devastated. He wrote that her illness had made his life 'one long anxiety and terror'.
In the final years of his life Whistler travelled constantly. In Holland in 1902 he was struck down with illness. He died the following year in Chelsea, England of heart disease. A man of paradox, on the one hand outwardly flamboyant and outrageous sometimes almost foppish, on the other hand he brought to the canvas a sensitivity and subtlety that eventually earned him respect and acclaim.