Young Whistler was a moody child prone to fits of temper and insolence, who after bouts of ill-health often drifted into periods of laziness. His parents discovered in his early youth that drawing often settled him down and helped focus his attention. Beginning in 1842, his father was employed to work on a railroad in Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg to join his father a year later, the young Whistler took private art lessons, then enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts at age 11. The young artist followed the traditional curriculum of drawing from plaster casts and occasional live models, reveled in the atmosphere of art talk with older peers, and pleased his parents with a first-class mark in anatomy. In 1844, he met the noted Scottish artist Sir William Allan, who came to Russia with a commission to paint a history of the life of Peter the Great. Whistler’s mother noted in her diary, “the great artist remarked to me ‘Your little boy has uncommon genius, but do not urge him beyond his inclination.’”
In 1847-8, his family spent some time in London with relatives, while his father stayed in Russia. Whistler’s brother-in-law Francis Haden, a physician who was also a talented artist, spurred his interest in art and photography. Haden took Whistler to visit collectors and to lectures, and gave him a watercolor set with instruction. Whistler was already imagining an art career. He began to collect books on art and he studied other artists’ technique. When his portrait was painted by Sir William Boxall in 1848, the young Whistler exclaimed that the portrait was “very much like me and a very fine picture. Mr. Boxall is a beautiful colourist…It is a beautiful creamy surface, and looks so rich.” In his blossoming enthusiasm for art, at fifteen, he informed his father by letter of his future direction, “I hope, dear father, you will not object to my choice.” His father, however, died from cholera at the age of forty-nine, and the Whistler family moved back to his mother’s hometown of Pomfret, Connecticut. His art plans remained vague and his future uncertain. The family lived frugally and managed to get by on a limited income. His cousin reported that Whistler at that time was “slight, with a pensive, delicate face, shaded by soft brown curls…he had a somewhat foreign appearance and manner, which, aided by natural abilities, made him very charming, even at that age.”
Whistler was sent to Christ Church Hall School with his mother’s hopes that he would become a minister. Whistler was seldom without his sketchbook and was popular with his classmates for his caricatures. However, after it became clear that a career in religion did not suit him, he applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father had once taught drawing, and other relatives had attended. On the strength of his family name, and despite his extreme nearsightedness and poor health history, he was admitted to the highly selective institution. However, during his three years there, his grades were barely satisfactory, and he was a sorry sight at drill and dress. Known as “Curly” for his hair length which exceeded regulations, Whistler bucked authority, spouted sarcastic comments, and racked up demerits. His major accomplishment was learning drawing and mapmaking from American artist Robert W. Weir.
His departure from West Point seems to have been precipitated by a failure in a chemistry exam; as he himself put it later: "If silicon were a gas, I would have been a general one day." However, a separate anecdote suggests misconduct in drawing class as the reason for Whistler's departure.
After West Point, Whistler worked as draftsman mapping the entire U.S. coast for military and maritime purposes. He found the work boring and he was frequently late or absent. He spent much of his free time playing billiards and idling about, was always broke, and though a charmer, had little acquaintance with women. After it was discovered that he was drawing sea serpents, mermaids, and whales on the margins of the maps, he was transferred to the etching division of the U. S. Coast Survey. Though he lasted there only two months, he learned etching technique which later proved valuable to his career.
At this point, Whistler firmly decided that art would be his future. For a few months he lived in Baltimore with wealthy friend Tom Winans, who even furnished Whistler with a studio and some spending cash. The young artist made some valuable contacts in the art community and also sold some early paintings to Winans. Whistler turned down his mother’s suggestions for other more practical careers and informed her that with money from Winans, he was setting out to further his art training in Paris. Whistler would never return to the United States.
Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855, rented a studio in the Latin Quarter, and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. Soon, he had a French girlfriend, a dressmaker named Héloise. He studied traditional art methods for a short time at the Ecole Impériale and at the atelier of Charles Gabriel Gleyre. The latter was a great advocate of the work of Ingres, and impressed Whistler with two principles that he used for the rest of his career: line is more important than color and that black is the fundamental color of tonal harmony. Twenty years later, the Impressionists would largely overthrow this philosophy, banning black and brown as “forbidden colors” and emphasizing color over form.
Whistler preferred self-study (including copying at the Louvre) and enjoying the café life. While letters from home reported his mother’s efforts at economy, Whistler spent freely, sold little or nothing in his first year in Paris, and was in steady debt. To relieve the situation, he took to painting and selling copies he made at the Louvre and finally moved to cheaper quarters. As luck would have it, the arrival in Paris of George Lucas, another rich friend, helped stabilize Whistler’s finances for awhile. In spite of a financial respite, the winter of 1847 was a difficult one for Whistler. His poor health, made worse by excessive smoking and drinking, laid him low.
Conditions improved during the summer of 1858. Whistler recovered and traveled with fellow artist Ernest Delannoy through France and the Rhineland. He later produced a group of etching known as “The French Set”, with the help of French master printer Auguste Delâtre. During that year, he painted his first self-portrait, "Portrait of Whistler with Hat", a dark and thickly rendered work reminiscent of Rembrandt. But the event of greatest consequence that year was his friendship with Henri Fantin-Latour, whom he met at the Louvre. Through him, Whistler was introduced to the circle of Gustave Courbet, which included Carolus-Duran (later the teacher of John Singer Sargent), Alphonse Legros, and Edouard Manet.
Also in this group was Charles Baudelaire, whose ideas and theories of “modern” art influenced Whistler. Baudelaire challenged artists to scrutinize the brutality of life and nature and portray it faithfully, avoiding the old themes of mythology and allegory. Theophile Gautier, one of the first to explore translational qualities among art and music, may have inspired Whistler to view art in musical terms.
Reflecting the banner of realism of his adopted circle, Whistler painted his first exhibited work, La Mere Gerard in 1858, followed by At the Piano in 1859. The latter is a portrait done of his niece and her mother in their London music room, an effort which clearly displayed his talent and promise. A critic wrote, “[despite] a recklessly bold manner and sketchiness of the wildest and roughest kind, [it has] a genuine feeling for colour and a splendid power of composition and design, which evince a just appreciation of nature very rare amongst artists.” The work is unsentimental and effectively contrasts the mother in black and the daughter in white, with other colors kept restrained in the manner advised by his teacher Gleyre. It was displayed at the Royal Academy the following year, and in many exhibits to come.
In a second painting done in the same room, Whistler demonstrated his natural inclination toward innovation and novelty by fashioning a genre scene with unusual composition and foreshortening. It was later re-titled Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room. This painting also demonstrated Whistler’s ongoing work pattern, especially with portraits: a quick start, major adjustments, a period of neglect, then a final flurry to the finish.
He spent a year in London during 1860, and produced another group of etching called Thames Set, as well as some early impressionistic work, including The Thames in Ice. At this stage, he was beginning to establish his technique of tonal harmony based on a limited, pre-determined palette.
In 1861, after returning to Paris from London, Whistler painted his first famous work, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. The portrait of his mistress and business manager Jo Hiffernan was created as a simple study in white; however, others saw it differently. Critic Castagnary thought the painting an allegory of a new bride’s lost innocence. Others linked it to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, a popular novel of the time, or various other literary sources. In England, some considered it a painting in the Pre-Raphaelite manner. In the painting, Hiffernan holds a lily in her left hand and stands upon a bear skin rug (interpreted by some to represent masculinity and lust) with the bear’s head staring menacingly at the viewer. The portrait was refused for exhibition at the conservative Royal Academy but in 1863 it was accepted at the Salon des Refusés in Paris, an event sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III for the exhibition of works rejected from the Salon.
Whistler’s painting was widely noticed though upstaged by Manet’s more shocking painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Countering criticism by traditionalists, Whistler’s supporters insisted that the painting was “an apparition with a spiritual content” and that it epitomized his theory that art should essentially be concerned with the arrangement of colors in harmony, not with a literal portrayal of the natural world.
Two years later, Whistler painted another portrait of Jo in white, this time displaying his new found interest in Asian motifs, which he titled The Little White Girl. His Lady of the Land Lijsen and The Golden Screen, both completed in 1864, again portray his mistress, in even more emphatic Asian dress and surroundings. During this period Whistler became close to Courbet, the early leader of the French realist school, but when Jo modeled in the nude for Courbet, Whistler became enraged and his relationship with Jo began to fall apart. In January 1864, Whistler’s very religious and very proper mother arrived in London, upsetting her son’s bohemian existence and temporarily exacerbating family tensions. As he wrote to Fantin, “General upheaval!! I had to empty my house and purify it from cellar to eaves.” He also immediately moved Jo to another location.
In 1866, Whistler decided to visit Valparaiso, Chile, a journey that has puzzled scholars, though Whistler stated that he did it for political reasons. Chile was at war with Spain and perhaps Whistler thought it a heroic struggle of a small nation against a larger one, but no evidence supports that theory. What the journey did produce was Whistler’s first three nocturnal paintings—which he termed “moonlights” and later re-titled as “nocturnes”—night scenes of the harbor painted with a blue or light green palette. After he returned to London, he painted several more nocturnes over the next ten years, many of the Thames River and of Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure park famous for its frequent fireworks displays, which presented a novel challenge to paint. In his maritime nocturnes, Whistler used highly thinned paint as a ground with lightly flicked color to suggest ships, lights, and shore line. Some of the Thames paintings also show compositional and thematic similarities with the Japanese prints of Hiroshige.
I say I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me —besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish!
At that point, Whistler began to re-title many of his earlier works using descriptions such as a “nocturne”, “symphony”, “harmony”, “study” or “arrangement”, to emphasize the tonal qualities and the composition and to de-emphasize the narrative content Whistler’s nocturnes were among his most innovative works. Furthermore, his submission of several nocturnes to art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel after the Franco-Prussian War gave Whistler the opportunity to explain his evolving “theory in art” to artists, buyers and critics in France. His good friend Fantin-Latour, growing more reactionary in his opinions, especially in his negativity concerning the emerging Impressionist school, found Whistler’s new works surprising and confounding. Fantin-Latour admitted, “I don’t understand anything there; it’s bizarre how one changes. I don’t recognize him anymore.” Their relationship was nearly at an end by then but they continued to share opinions in occasional correspondence. When Degas invited Whistler to exhibit with the first show by the Impressionists in 1874, Whistler turned down the invitation, as did Manet, and some scholars attributed this in part to Fantin-Latour’s influence on both men.
The austere portrait in his normally constrained palette is another Whistler exercise in tonal harmony and composition. The deceptively simple design is in fact a balancing act of differing shapes, particularly rectangles of the curtain, picture on the wall, wall and floor which stabilize the curve of her face, dress, and chair. Again, though his mother is the subject, Whistler commented that the narrative was of little importance. In reality, however, it was a homage to his pious mother. After the initial shock of her moving in with her son, she aided him considerably by stabilizing his behavior somewhat, tending to his domestic needs, and providing an aura of conservative respectability that helped win over patrons.
Mostly due to its anti-Victorian simplicity during a time in England when sentimentality and fussy decoration were in vogue, the public reacted negatively. Critics thought the painting a failed “experiment” rather than art. The Royal Academy rejected it, then grudgingly accepted it after lobbying by Sir William Boxall—but then hung the painting in an unfavorable location at its exhibition.
From the start, Whistler’s Mother sparked varying reactions, including parody, ridicule, and reverence, which has continued to today. While some saw it as “the dignified feeling of old ladyhood”, “a grave sentiment of mourning”, or a “perfect symbol of motherhood”, others employed it as a fitting vehicle for mockery. It has been satirized in endless variation in greeting cards and magazines, and by cartoon characters such as Donald Duck and Bullwinkle the Moose. Whistler did his part in promoting the picture and popularizing the image. He frequently exhibited it and authorized the early reproductions that made their way into thousands of homes.
The painting narrowly escaped being burnt in a fire aboard a train during shipping. Later the painting was purchased by the French government, the first Whistler work in a public collection, and is now housed in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
During the Depression, the picture was billed as “million dollar” painting and was a big hit at the Chicago World’s Fair. It was accepted as a universal icon of motherhood by the world-wide public, which was not particularly aware or concerned with Whistler’s aesthetic theories. In public recognition of its status and popularity, the United States issued a postage stamp in 1934 featuring an adaptation of the painting.
In summing up the painting’s impact author Martha Tedeschi has stated:
“ Whistler’s Mother, Wood’s American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch’s The Scream have all achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. These few works have successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture.”
Whistler had been disappointed over the irregular acceptance of his works for the Royal Academy exhibitions and the poor hanging and placement of his paintings. In response, Whistler staged his first one-man show in 1874. The show was notable and noticed, however, for Whistler’s design and decoration of the hall which harmonized well with the paintings, in keeping with his art theories. A reviewer wrote, “The visitor is struck, on entering the gallery, with a curious sense of harmony and fitness pervading it, and is more interested, perhaps, in the general effect than in any one work.”
Whistler was not as successful a portrait painter as the other famous expatriate American John Singer Sargent. Whistler’s spare technique and his disinclination to flatter his sitters, as well as his notoriety may account for this. He also worked very slowly and demanded extraordinarily long sittings. William Merritt Chase complained of his sitting for a portrait by Whistler, “He proved to be a veritable tyrant, painting every day into the twilight, while my limbs ached with weariness and my head swam dizzily. ‘Don’t move! Don’t move!’ he would scream whenever I started to rest.” By the time he gained widespread acceptance in the 1890’s, Whistler was past his prime as a portrait painter.
A supremely gifted engraver, Whistler produced numerous etchings, lithographs, and dry-points. His lithographs, some drawn on stone, others drawn directly on "lithographie" paper, are perhaps half as numerous as his etchings. Some of the lithographs are of figures slightly draped; two or three of the very finest are of Thames subjects — including a "nocturne" at Limehouse; while others depict the Faubourg Saint-Germain in Paris, and Georgian churches in Soho and Bloomsbury in London. The etchings include portraits of family, mistresses, and intimate street scenes in London and Venice.
Whistler's Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room is his interior design masterpiece. The room was painted in a rich and unified palette of brilliant blue-greens with over-glazing and metallic gold leaf, and is considered a high example of the Anglo-Japanese style.
Unhappy with the first decorative result by another artist, Leyland left the room in Whistler’s care to make minor changes, “to harmonize” the room whose primary purpose was to display Leyland’s china collection. However, Whistler let his imagination run wild, “Well, you know, I just painted on. I went on—without design or sketch—putting in every touch with such freedom…And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy of it.” Upon returning, Leyland was shocked by the “improvements”. Artist and patron quarreled so violently over the room and the proper compensation for the work that the important relationship for Whistler was terminated. At one point, Whistler gained access to Leyland's home and painted two fighting peacocks meant to represent the artist and his patron; one holds a paint brush and the other holds a bag of money.
Whistler is reported to have said to Leyland, “Ah, I have made you famous. My work will live when you are forgotten. Still, per chance, in the dim ages to come you will be remembered as the proprietor of the Peacock Room.” Adding to the emotional drama, was Whistler’s fondness for Leyland’s wife, Frances, who separated from her husband in 1879. The entire room was later purchased by the American industrialist and aesthete Charles Lang Freer, and installed in his collection. The Peacock Room now resides in the Smithsonian Museum's Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
For Mr. Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay [founder of the Grosvenor Gallery] ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. 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.
Whistler, seeing the attack in the newspaper, replied to his friend George Boughton, “It is the most debased style of criticism I have had thrown at me yet.” He then went to his solicitor and drew up a writ for libel which was served to Ruskin. Whistler hoped to recover £1,000 plus the costs of the action. The case came to trial the following year after delays caused by Ruskin’s bouts of mental illness, while Whistler’s financial condition continued to deteriorate. It was heard at the Queen's Bench of the High Court from November 25th to 26th 1878. The lawyer for John Ruskin, Attorney General Sir John Holker, cross examined Whistler:
Whistler had counted on many artists to take his side as witnesses but they refused fearing damage to their reputations. The other witnesses for him were unconvincing and the jury’s own reaction to the work was derisive. With Ruskin’s witnesses more impressive, including Edward Burne-Jones, and with Ruskin absent for medical reasons, Whistler’s counter-attack was ineffective. Nonetheless, the jury reached a verdict in favor of Whistler but awarded a mere farthing in nominal damages, and the court costs were split. The cost of the case, together with huge debts from building his residence, "The White House" in Tite Street, Chelsea, (designed with E. W. Godwin, 1877–8) bankrupted him by May 1879, resulting in an auction of his work, collections and house. Stansky notes the irony that the Fine Art Society of London, which had organized a collection to pay for Ruskin's legal costs, supported him in etching "the stones of Venice" (and in exhibiting the series in 1883) which helped recoup Whistler’s costs.
Whistler published his account of the trial in the pamphlet Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics in December 1878, soon after the trial. Whistler’s grand hope that the publicity of the trial would rescue his career was dashed as patrons avoided him for years to come. Among his creditors was Leyland, who oversaw the sale of Whistler’s possessions. Whistler made various caricatures of his former patron, including a biting satirical painting called The Gold Scab, just after Whistler declared bankruptcy. Whistler always blamed Leyland for his financial downfall.
After the Ruskin trial, everything he mentioned or wrote about his work, and especially everything he told his biographers was done in a way in which he could dissociate himself from the English school of painting. His main purpose was to lose any relations he had with the couple of enemies he had made among the Royal Academicians, and the artists who he had been close to during the 1860s.
After the trial, Whistler received a commission to do twelve etchings in Venice. He eagerly accepted the assignment, and with girlfriend Maud arrived in the city, taking rooms in a dilapidated palazzo they shared with other artists, including John Singer Sargent. Though homesick for London, he adapted to Venice and set about discovering its character. He did his best to distract himself from the gloom of his financial affairs and the pending sale of all his goods at Sotheby’s. He was a regular guest at parties at the American consulate, and with his usual wit, enchanted the guests with verbal flourishes such as “the artist’s only positive virtue is idleness—and there are so few who are gifted at it.”
His new friends reported, on the contrary, that Whistler rose early and put in a full day of effort. He wrote to a friend, “I have learned to know Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived, and which, if I bring back with me as I propose, will far more than compensate for all annoyances delays & vexations of spirit.” The three month assignment stretched to fourteen months. During this exceptionally productive period, Whistler finished over fifty etchings, several nocturnes, some watercolors, and over 100 pastels—illustrating both the moods of Venice and its fine architectural details. Furthermore, Whistler influenced the American art community in Venice, especially Frank Duveneck and Robert Blum who emulated Whistler’s vision of city and later spread his methods and influence back to America.
Back in London, the pastels sold particularly well and he quipped, “They are not as good as I supposed. They are selling!” He was actively engaged in exhibiting his other work but with limited success. Though still struggling financially, however, he was heartened by the attention and admiration he received from the young generation of English and American painters who made him their idol and eagerly adapted the title of “pupil of Whistler”. Many of them returned to America and spread tales of Whistler’s provocative egotism, sharp wit, and aesthetic pronouncements—establishing the legend of Whistler, much to his great satisfaction.
Whistler published his first book Ten O’clock Lecture in 1885, a major expression of his belief in “art for art’s sake”. At the time, the opposing Victorian notion reigned, namely, that art, and indeed much human activity, had a moral or social function. But to Whistler, art was its own end and the artist’s responsibility was not to society but to himself, to interpret through art, and to neither reproduce nor moralize what he saw. Furthermore, he stated, “Nature is very rarely right”, and must be improved upon by the artist, with his own vision.
Though differing with Whistler on several points, including his insistence that poetry was a higher form of art than painting, Wilde was generous in his praise and hailed the lecture a masterpiece:
“not merely for its clever satire and amusing jests…but for the pure and perfect beauty of many of its passages…for that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, is my opinion. And I may add that is this opinion Mr. Whistler himself entirely concurs.”
Whistler, however, thought himself mocked by Wilde, and from then on, public sparring ensued leading to a total breakdown of their friendship. Later, Wilde struck at Whistler again, basing the murdered artist in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray after Whistler.
In January 1881, Anna Whistler died. In his mother’s honor, he adopted her maiden name McNeill as his middle name. Whistler joined the Society of British Artists in 1884, which lasted for four years until he resigned unhappy with treatment he received for his “eccentricities” and “UnEnglish” background.
With his relationship with Maud unraveling, Whistler suddenly proposed and married Beatrice (“Trixie”) Godwin, a former pupil and the former wife of his architect, who had died two years earlier. Her respectability and connections helped bring him badly needed commissions in the early 1890’s. His new book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, was published in 1890 to mixed success but it afforded helpful publicity.
In 1890, he met Charles Lang Freer, who became a valuable patron in America, and ultimately, his most important collector. Around this time, in addition to portraiture, Whistler experimented with early color photography and with lithography, creating a series featuring London architecture and the human figure, mostly female nudes. In 1891, with help from his close friend Stéphane Mallarmé, Whistler’s Mother was purchased by the French government for 4,000 francs. This was much less than what an American collector might have paid, but that would not have been as prestigious by Whistler’s reckoning.
After an indifferent reception to his one-man show in London, featuring mostly his nocturnes, Whistler abruptly decided he had had enough of London. He and Trixie moved to Paris in 1892. He felt welcomed by Monet, Auguste Rodin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and by Stéphane Mallarmé, and he set himself up a large studio. He was at the top of his career when it was discovered that Trixie had incurable cancer. She died in 1896.
In the final seven years of his life, Whistler did some minimalist seascapes in watercolor and a final self-portrait in oil. He corresponded with his many friends and colleagues. Whistler founded an art school in 1898, but his poor health and infrequent appearances led to its closure in 1901. He died in London on July 17, 1903.
Whistler was the subject of a contemporaneous biography by his friend, the printmaker Joseph Pennell who collaborated with his wife Elizabeth Robins Pennell to write The Life of James McNeill Whistler, published in 1908. The Pennell’s vast collection of Whistler material was bequeathed to the Library of Congress.
The artist’s entire estate was left to his sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip. She spent her life defending his reputation and managing his art and effects, much of which was eventually donated to Glasgow University.
Whistler had a distinctive appearance, short and slight, with piercing eyes and a curling moustache, often sporting a monocle and the flashy attire of a dandy. He affected a posture of self-confidence and eccentricity. He was often arrogant and selfish toward friends and patrons. A constant self-promoter and egoist, he relished shocking friends and enemies. Though he could be droll and flippant about social and political matters, he was always serious about art and often invited public controversy and debate to support his strongly-held theories.
Whistler had a high-pitched drawling voice and a unique manner of speech, full of calculated pauses. A friend said, “In a second you discover that he is not conversing—he is sketching in words, giving impressions in sound and sense to be interpreted by the hearer.”
He was well-known for his biting wit, especially in exchanges with his friend and rival Oscar Wilde. Both were figures in the café society of Paris, and they were often the “talk of the town”. They frequently appeared as caricatures in Punch, to their mutual amusement. On one occasion, young Oscar Wilde attended one of Whistler's dinners, and hearing his host make some brilliant remark, apparently said, "I wish I'd said that", to which Whistler riposted, "You will, Oscar, you will!" In fact, Wilde did repeat in public many witticisms created by Whistler. Their relationship soured by the mid-1880’s, as Whistler turned against Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement. When Wilde was publicly acknowledged to be a homosexual in 1895, Whistler openly mocked him.
Whistler reveled in preparing and managing his social gatherings. As a guest observed:
One met all the best in Society there—the people with brains, and those who had enough to appreciate them. Whistler was an inimitable host. He loved to be the Sun round whom we lesser lights revolved…All came under his influence, and in consequence no one was bored, no one dull.
In addition to Henri Fantin-Latour, Alphonse Legros, and Courbet, Whistler was friendly with many French artists. He illustrated the book Les Chauves-Souris with Antonio de La Gandara. He also knew the impressionists, notably Edouard Manet, Monet, and Edgar Degas. As a young artist, he maintained a close friendship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His close friendship with Monet and poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who translated the ‘’Ten O’clock Lecture’’ into French, helped strengthen respect for Whistler by the French public.
Whistler's lover and model for The White Girl, Joanna Hiffernan, also posed for Gustave Courbet. Historians speculate that Courbet's erotic painting of her as L'Origine du monde led to the breakup of the friendship between Whistler and Courbet.
During the 1870’s and much of the 1880’s, he lived with his model-mistress Maud Franklin. Her ability to endure his long, repetitive sittings helped Whistler develop his portrait skills. He not only made several excellent portraits of her but she was also a helpful stand-in for other sitters. In 1888, Whistler married Beatrix Godwin, the widow of the architect E. W. Godwin, who had designed Whistler’s White House. The first five years of their marriage were very happy but her later life was a time of misery for the couple, due to her illness and eventual death from cancer. Near the end, she lay comatose much of the time, completely addicted to morphine given for pain relief. Her death was a strong blow Whistler never quite overcame. Whistler had several illegitimate children, of which Charles Hanson is the best documented.
As a realist painter, he was unafraid to change course and experiment with impressionist and semi-abstract techniques, particularly with his controversial but innovative “nocturnes”. Like the Impressionists, he employed nature as an artistic resource. Whistler insisted that it was the artist’s obligation to interpret what he saw, not be a slave to reality, and to “bring forth from chaos glorious harmony. His masterpiece the “Peacock Room” was a important predecessor of Art Nouveau style. Despite his attempts to deny that he did not belong to any school, Whistler is considered one of the few Victorian painters who is known for revitalizing the 'grand manner' of British painting.
During his life, he impacted two generations of artists, in Europe and in the United States. Whistler had significant contact and exchanged ideas and ideals with Realist, Impressionist, and Symbolist painters. Famous protégés for a time included Oscar Wilde and impressionist painter Walter Sickert. His tonalism had a profound effect on many American artists, including John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase. Another significant influence was upon Arthur Frank Mathews, whom Whistler met in Paris in the late 1890s. Mathews took Whistler's Tonalism to San Francisco, spawning a broad use of that technique among turn of the century California artists.
As American critic Charles Caffin wrote in 1907:
“He did better than attract a few followers and imitators; he influenced the whole world of art. Consciously, or unconsciously, his presence is felt in countless studios; his genius permeates modern artistic thought.”
During his trip to Venice, Italy in 1880, he created a series of etchings and pastels that not only reinvigorated Whistler's finances, but also re-energized the way in which artists and photographers interpreted the city—focusing on the back alleys, side canals, entrance ways, and architectural patterns—and capturing the city’s unique atmospherics.
Whistler was likely the model for the artist character in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. George du Maurier’s novel Trilby (1894) contains an artist character who is “vain, witty, and a most exquisite and a most original artist”, also likely based on Whistler.
The Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience pokes fun at the Aesthetic movement, and the lead character of Reginald Bunthorne is often identified as send-up of Oscar Wilde, though Bunthorne is more likely an amalgam of several prominent artists, writers and Aesthetic figures. Bunthorne wears a monocle and has prominent white streak in his dark hair, as did Whistler.