James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 14, 1834 - July 17, 1903) was an American painter and etcher. He is perhaps best known for his nearly black-and-white full-length portrait of his mother, titled Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 1, but usually referred to as Whistler's Mother.
Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. His father, George Washington Whistler, was invited to Russia in 1842 to build a railroad and James learned French in school there. He also attended the United States Military Academy at West Point for several years.
Though American, Whistler lived and worked mainly in Britain and France. His painting The White Girl (1862) caused controversy when exhibited in London and, later, at the Salon des Refusés in Paris. The painting epitomised Whistler's theory that art should essentially be concerned with the beautiful arrangement of colors in harmony, not with the accurate portrayal of the natural world, as recommended by the critic John Ruskin. In 1878 Whistler sued Ruskin for libel after the critic condemned his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, calling the artist a "coxcomb". Whistler won a farthing in nominal damages. The cost of the case, together with huge debts from building his residence called the "White House" in Chelsea, bankrupted him.
Whistler was friendly with various French artists, illustrating the book Les Chauves-Souris with Antonio de La Gandara. He also knew the impressionists, notably Edouard Manet, and was also a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement. He shared his lover, Joanna Hiffernan with Gustave Courbet, as a model; it is thought he painted her as L'Origine du monde, leading to the breakup of Whistler's friendship with Courbet. Whistler was well-known for his biting wit, especially in exchanges with his friend Oscar Wilde. Both were well-known figures in the café society of Paris, at the turn of the 20th century. Whistler's famous riposte to Wilde's statement, "I wish I'd said that" -- "You will Oscar, you will", may be apocryphal.
Whistler's belief that art should concentrate on the arrangement of colors has led many critics to see his work as a precursor of abstract art. He was, though, an extremely gifted engraver, producing numerous etchings, lithographs and dry-points. Of these, the main characteristics are precision and vivacity; freedom, flexibility, infinite technical resource, at the service always of the most alert and comprehensive observation; an eye that no picturesqueness of light and shade, no interesting grouping of line, can ever escape — an eye, that is, that is emancipated from conventionality, and sees these things therefore with equal willingness in a cathedral and a mass of scaffolding, in a Chelsea shop and in a suave nude figure, in the facade of a Flemish palace and in a "great wheel" at West Kensington.
His lithographs — his drawings on the stone in many instances, and in others his drawings on that "lithographie paper" which with some people is the easy substitute for the stone to-day — are perhaps half as numerous as his etchings. Mr T. R. Way has catalogued about a hundred. 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, of unimaginable and poetic mystery; others are bright and dainty indications of quaint prettiness in the old Faubourg St Germain, and of the sober lines of certain Georgian churches in Soho and Bloomsbury. An initiator in his own generation, and ever tastefully experimental, Whistler no doubt has found enjoyment in the variety of the mediums he has worked in, and in the variety of subjects he has brilliantly tackled. The absence of concentration in the Whistlerian temperament, the lack of great continuity of effort, may probably prove a drawback to his taking exactly the place as a painter of oil pictures, which, in other circumstances, his genius and his taste would most certainly have secured for him. In the future Whistler must be accounted, in oil painting, a master exquisite but rare. But the number and the range of his etched subjects and the extraordinary variety of perception and of skill which he has brought to bear upon the execution of his nearly three hundred coppers, ensure, and have indeed already compassed, the acceptance of him as a master among masters in that art of etching. Rembrandt's, Van Dyck's, Meryon's, Claude's, are, in fact, the only names which there is full warranty for pronouncing beside his own.
He is buried in St Nicholas's churchyard in Chiswick, London.