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Who is Whistler? This week we have a query about the artist James Whistler from Ashutosh Das.

March 30, 2009 3:11:03 am

Who is Whistler?
This week we have a query about the artist James Whistler from Ashutosh Das. This Mumbai-based graphic designer wants to know: was Whistler an important artist? The prompt answer will be: “Yes,Whistler was a leading believer in the ‘art for art’s sake’ credo”. Born in Massachusetts in 1834,James Abbott McNeill Whistler moved to Russia and later studied in Paris. Whistler was a lover of art that was an amalgam of the mystical and the real. He painted alongside artists like Gustave Courbet and Henri Fantin-Latour,who were all well known Realists. Later,he was influenced by Dante Rossetti of the Pre-Raphaelites,a group of artists who challenged the notion that the Renaissance was the pinnacle of art.

Whistler was known as a witty and flamboyant painter who traveled around Europe,hopping from Paris to London. It’s not just the works of this talented painter that made him a name. The controversies his work ran into also contributed to it. His first major painting,The Piano,was rejected by the Salon in 1859. But it was well received,when he took the work to show at the Royal Academy later. Next,his painting,Symphony in White,No: 1 The White Girl,a portrait of his lover and business manager,Joanna Hiffernan,was rejected both by the Royal Academy and the Salon.

The work found acceptance at the Salon des Refuses,a venue that also showcased the Impressionists and the Realists,whose works were rejected for not adhering to the ideals of Classical beauty. However,most of Whistler’s paintings imbibed the subtle delicacy of Classical music of the time. His works were named after symphonies and musical arrangements. They lacked the fine finish of Classical Masters since Whistler preferred a sketchy finish to his paintings. Critics described this as “reckless”. Given that Whistler was often on the verge of bankruptcy and suffered from chronic alcoholism,the ‘recklessness’ with which he attacked his compositions,may well reflect the artist’s state of mind.

A stint in Chile’s Valparaiso gave Whistler a new body of work—a series of dimly-lit view of the harbour at night,which he named Nocturnes. These were orchestrations of colour that followed the theory of “art for art’s sake”. Here content and narrative were abandoned in favour of purity of colour and line. The artist soon returned to portraits. His most famous work is the portrait of his mother. He went on to paint many portraits and had a major court battle with a critic John Ruskin.

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To sum it up,Whistler’s works were an important insight into unsentimental art.

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