Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake

Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake

by Daniel E. Sutherland


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Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake by Daniel E. Sutherland

A major new biography of James McNeill Whistler, one of most complex, intriguing, and important of America’s artists

This engaging personal history dispels the popular notion of James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) as merely a combative, eccentric, and unrelenting publicity seeker. The Whistler revealed in these beautifully illustrated pages is an intense, introspective, and complex man, plagued by self-doubt and haunted by an endless pursuit of perfection in his painting and drawing.
“[Sutherland] seeks to get behind the public Whistler . . . never judging or condescending to his subject. . . . The portrait of Whistler that emerges is complex and mysterious . . . a measured and scholarly account of an extraordinary life.”—Ruth Scurr, Wall Street Journal
“The first comprehensive biography of Whistler in at least a generation. . . . Sutherland skillfully captures Whistler’s ambition, tenacity, and insecurity and presents his life in a narrative that does justice to both his triumphs and his failures.”—Eleanor Jones Harvey, American Scholar

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300232639
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/27/2018
Pages: 510
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.18(h) x (d)

About the Author

Daniel E. Sutherland is distinguished professor of history, University of Arkansas. 

Read an Excerpt


A Life for Art's Sake

By Daniel E. Sutherland


Copyright © 2014 Daniel E. Sutherland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-20346-2


Jamie, My Boy


James Abbott Whistler was born in the busy mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, on Friday, July 11, 1834. Not that the place mattered. The bright-eyed boy nearly every- one would call Jemie had fallen into a tribe of nomads. He would live in three countries and nine homes before the age of seventeen, and that was one of the more settled periods of his life. He had also fallen into a distinguished tribe, with high standards of behavior and achievement. Much was given to young Whistler, but much was expected. Even with doting parents - and he came up trumps on that score - the sweet-tempered lad would find his youth a bumpy ride.

His father, George Washington Whistler, was rugged, disciplined, occasionally moody, and at all times a perfectionist. He had been born at the frontier army post of Fort Wayne, Indiana Territory, the son and brother of soldiers. Entering the family trade, he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1819. Life on the frontier made George Whistler self-reliant; West Point made him an engineer. Yet, he was an engineer with a soul. He cherished art and music as much as a sturdy bridge or well-graded road. Standing near the top of his West Point class in mathematics and philosophy, he led it in drawing. A self-taught flutist, he earned the nickname "Pipes." A classmate said Whistler was "too much of an artist to be an engineer," but the classmate was wrong. Whistler, the perfectionist, became one of the nation's finest engineers.

Jemie's mother, Anna Matilda McNeill, was a woman of quiet passions. Born the fourth of six children in a North Carolina family of physicians, soldiers, and planters, she lived from age ten in Brooklyn, New York, where her father had eventually settled. At fifteen, she met and fell in love with the gallant Lieutenant Whistler, only to see him marry her best friend, Mary Roberdeau Swift. However, when Mary died of typhoid nearly seven years later, the heartbroken widower found solace with Anna's family. Her brother William had been a West Point classmate, and Mary had supposedly told George on her deathbed, "If you marry the second time, it must be to Miss McNeill." Of course, a period of mourning was required, and the feelings of Whistler's three small children, George, Joseph, and Deborah, had to be considered. To test her own resolve, Anna left America for England in 1830 to stay with two half-sisters from her twice-wed father's first marriage. Whistler gave her a music box to take on the year-long sojourn. They married a year after her return.

Jemie was the first of Anna's five children, and by the time he was born, Major Whistler had left the army to work for the Boston and Lowell Railroad. Whistler, who had been constructing railroads and making locomotives since 1828, enjoyed a substantial reputation in the new industry. By taking the job in Lowell, he trebled his army pay of $1,000 per annum and received a rent-free, two-story house on what is now Worthen Street. Life was good in Lowell, but whether from restlessness or ambition, Whistler moved his family twice more in the next four years. The nomadic trek had begun. They went first to quiet Stonington, Connecticut. In 1840, they settled in another industrial center, Springfield, Massachusetts, where Whistler became the chief consulting engineer of the Western Railroad. The family, which now numbered six children, lived in a grand house of nearly twenty rooms on Chestnut Street. Several servants attended them, the family favorite being their housekeeper, an Irish immigrant named Mary Brennan.

But hopscotching across New England was nothing compared with the family's next move. Word of Whistler's engineering and administrative skills had reached the Russian tsar. Determined to bind his enormous country together for military mobilization and economic development, Nicholas I hired him to build a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Whistler received a staggering $12,000 annual salary and a semi-official position at the Russian court, but his task was monumental. The 400-mile railroad, cutting through some of Russia's roughest terrain, would require 200 bridges and nearly 70 viaducts. He would also be responsible for manufacturing the rolling stock, to include 162 locomotives, 2,580 freight cars, and 70 passenger cars. Eager to begin, he left the United States in June 1842, with Anna, the five youngest children, and Mary Brennan to follow.

That Anna left America at all spoke of her devotion to George and her strength of character. Life in an alien land held no appeal for her. Indeed, she had urged George to decline the Russian post. How would the children be educated? she asked. How might their Christian upbringing be injured, their health endangered? Typhoid fever had already taken a stepson three years earlier, and, as it happened, the third of Anna's own sons, Kirk Booth, aged four, died shortly after his father left for St. Petersburg. Then, just as the family was to join him, in May 1843, Jemie nearly died of rheumatic fever.

The little band finally left Boston in August, bound for Liverpool aboard the British paddle-wheeler Acadia. The crossing, full of adventure for nine-year-old Jemie and seven-year-old William McNeill, or Willie, Anna's second child, took twelve days. On arriving in England, they spent a fortnight at Preston with Anna's half-sisters, Eliza Winstanley and the unmarried Alicia McNeill, before catching a steamer from London to Hamburg. A long, uncomfortable coach trip carried them to Travemunde, where they boarded another steamer for the final leg of their journey. Tragically, Anna's youngest son, two-year-old Charles Donald, died from inflammation of the bowels before the family reached St. Petersburg in early October. A distraught Major Whistler blamed himself for the boy's death. He grieved all the more knowing that Charlie's little corpse must be returned to Stonington for interment beside Kirk.

Physically and emotionally drained, the rest of the family surveyed the place they would call home for nearly six years. Russia's imperial capital was a beautiful city, with its gilded spires and domes, grand palaces, broad boulevards, and fragrant gardens, and the Whistlers were fortunate to have Colonel Charles Stewart Todd, the U.S. foreign minister to Russia, help them settle there. Eighteen-year-old Deborah Whistler, with whom Todd flirted, thought the suave, fifty-year-old Kentuckian "a great goose," but Todd leased his own luxurious house on an exclusive street, the Galernaya, to the family. A retinue of servants, including cook, butler, two housemaids, laundress, and yard man, confirmed the aura of luxury. A few of the servants, most importantly the cook, even spoke a little English.

Nor was St. Petersburg as alien as Anna had feared. The city boasted a thriving community of British, American, and English-speaking European businessmen, merchants, and shopkeepers, several of whom befriended the Whistlers. The very pier at which they landed was called the English quay, lined with splendid Neo-Classical buildings and handsome mansions. An English bookshop stood within walking distance of their new home, and several boarding houses catered to British visitors. An "English Church," established in 1754, sat near the center of the quay. The Anglo- American contingent numbered only about eight hundred in a city of five hundred thousand, but their wealth gave them disproportionate influence. Whistler added to the numbers by hiring a pair of American firms to build the locomotives and cars for his railroad. Their representatives, Joseph Harrison, Andrew Eastwick, and the Winans brothers, Thomas and William, became close confidants.

George and Anna used those connections to keep their home as "American" as possible. George had turned down the tsar's offer of a commission in the Russian army, and he insisted that his children cherish their nationality as much as they did their religion. The family celebrated its first Christmas in the American fashion. They hung stockings and exchanged gifts, and Anna invited four American families to join them in a feast of roast turkey and pumpkin pie. They observed the holiday according to the Gregorian calendar, too, rather than Russia's Julian date, which placed it twelve days later. Not that calendar or country made any difference when Jemie and Willie played out of doors. They ran their sleds on snow-packed streets as they would have done at home, coasted down tall, ice-coated wooden ramps, called "ice hills," erected in the center of town, and skated for hours on ponds and the broad river Neva.

George left the children's religious upbringing to his wife, who, as a devout Episcopalian, insisted on family prayers before breakfast and Scripture readings each evening. Friends marveled at the depth of Anna's piety, and her plain attire and lack of adornment had long been a source of family humor. "Anna is so unshakable," a sister-in-law once complained of her, "that sometimes I could shake her. And the way she will stand out even against people whose opinion means the most to her. One can't help admiring it but it seems so - well, so old!" For all that, Anna was quick and smart, well read and articulate. She had a playful streak, too, with a "twinkle" about her. No one less could have captured the affection of "Pipes" Whistler.

Anna's children were divided in their reactions to her piety. The boys occasionally rebelled against both Bible readings and school lessons, but the expectation that they would be good Christians seemed as reasonable to them as that they should behave as young gentlemen. Deborah, called Debo by the family and Dasha by her new Russian friends, was a different matter. Unlike Anna, who regarded court functions as "extravagant" and "dissipated," the vivacious and musically talented young lady chafed when not allowed to attend a soirée, reception, concert, opera, or play. Anna admired her stepdaughter's "amiability" and unaffected nature but wished she would take more pride in "domestic" accomplishments. Gradually, allowances were made, Debo accepted a degree of "moderation," and a truce prevailed.

In fact, none of the Whistler children was denied the cosmopolitan opportunities available in St. Petersburg. The family eventually accepted invitations to imperial parties and military reviews, and it was impossible to miss the fireworks, booming cannon, and pealing bells that marked public holidays. Jemie was dazzled that first year by a pair of visits to Catherine the Great's palace at Tsarskoye Selo, the "Village of the Tsar," some fifteen miles south of St. Petersburg. Poor health had caused him to miss an earlier tour of the Winter Palace, so he was wide-eyed upon entering Catherine's splendid apartments. Most dazzling was an opulent suite of rooms decorated and furnished in the "Chinese style." A return trip yielded a similar, if contrasting, delight when, prowling the extensive palace grounds, strewn with all variety of novelties and follies, he discovered a miniature Chinese village, complete with pagodas, huts, and bridges.

Both Jemie and Willie looked forward to the tsar's annual military reviews on the Champs de Mars, which they attended three years running. Even without his family's lineage, Jemie loved the pomp of military pageantry, and wanted nothing more than to be a solider. With some sixty thousand Russian troops garrisoned in St. Petersburg, he and Willie encountered soldiers almost daily, but they had never seen anything like this glittering spectacle of banners and uniforms. Not that the foreign display entirely seduced them. They remained, after all, their father's sons. When a Russian staff officer, having noticed what pleasure the boys took in one review, teasingly asked Jemie which regiment he would join, the boy replied proudly, "None here. I must wait to get again to my own country."

Still, the glamour could not disguise the perils of their new world, with persistent rounds of sickness being most notable. Jemie suffered two serious bouts of rheumatic fever and was confined to bed for long stretches of time with coughs and congestion. He also made his first trip to a dentist, the start of a lifetime of problems with his teeth. The delicate Debo fell ill even more often, if not as severely. Russian autumns were chilly and wet, winters more severe even than in New England, with temperatures well below zero for weeks on end. When warm weather returned, much of the land around St. Petersburg reverted to mosquito-infested swamp. Native Russians thrived on drinking water from the Neva, which appeared unpolluted to the eye but had "peculiar effects" on newcomers, who were advised to mix the water with wine or rum.

The poverty of many Russians also reminded the Whistlers that this place was not America. In a land of notable contrasts, none was more stark than the gap between rich and poor. Palaces and ducal homes on the one hand, hovels and crime- filled streets on the other, gave Anna yet another reason to rejoice in her nativity. Crime, as it happened, was something the family experienced personally. They awoke on the morning after their first Christmas to find that "rogues" had stolen a beautiful rosewood writing desk given to Anna by the children. Also missing were a fountain pen given by Anna to George and the major's flute. Whistler offered a "tempting reward & no questions" for their return, but the family never recovered its missing treasures. They grieved most over the lost flute, which had "many tender associations" for all.

The family put all such worries behind them come the summer of 1844, when they joined the many affluent Russians and foreigners who escaped St. Petersburg for the countryside. The major rented a villa less than four miles from town, about one hour by carriage, close enough to return for church on Sundays while living in a world of forests, flowers, blue lakes, and "ruby coloured" sunsets. The boys romped through the fields, fished for perch, went boating, staged plays, and made friends with several "little Russian cronies." Willie, who loved flowers, planted daisies in his own small garden. The dacha rang with music, too, when Debo, at the piano, accompanied the major on his new flute. Best of all, Aunt Alicia came to visit them.

Not that paradise came without cost. The boys had been taught by a German tutor in St. Petersburg, and Anna insisted that they continue their lessons, especially in French and Russian, through the summer. She, Debo, and a new Swedish tutor acted as instructors. Each boy also practiced on the piano for thirty minutes a day. Bent as well on self-improvement, Anna read Walter Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico, sometimes sharing passages aloud with the family. She also studied French and Russian, although Willie remained her interpreter when dealing with local shopkeepers.

Benevolent and religious duties remained, too. Anna spent much of her time in Russia ministering to the poor and supporting charitable work. Privately, she could be alarmingly dismissive of the lower ranks, but she raised her children to appreciate the family's good fortune and to respect the feelings of less fortunate people. Believing that everyone from the "home of the Pilgrims" had a duty to rescue people who "dwell[ed] in darkness," she had Jemie and Willie distribute religious tracts to local serfs, tenant farmers, "idle young men," and passing soldiers. She never suspected that the grateful men prized her gifts as rare sources of paper for cigarettes, not as spiritual enlightenment.

Nothing, though, could interfere with Jemie's favorite pastime, drawing. A family story had it that when asked, as a two-year-old, why he had secluded himself beneath a table, the boy replied, "I'se drawrin." Soon after the Whistlers settled in St. Petersburg, his father hired a twenty-seven-year-old Russian army officer and part-time art student named Alexander Koritsky to nurture Jemie's talent one day per week. Koritsky himself studied at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts under Italian-born Karl Briullov, one of Russia's premier painters. That summer, Jemie drew so compulsively that special trips to the Palette de Raphael, an artist's supply shop in St. Petersburg, were required.

His talent was confirmed that June, when a friend arrived at the villa with a distinguished visitor from Scotland. Sir William Allen had accepted a commission from the tsar to paint what would become Peter the Great Teaching his Subjects the Art of Shipbuilding. As he described the project to the Whistlers over tea, Allen noticed how Jemie hung on his every word. Being told of the boy's "love for art," he asked if he might inspect his work. He remained largely non-committal in Jemie's presence, only later telling Anna, "[Y]our little boy has uncommon genius, but do not urge him beyond his inclination." Anna assured him that Jemie's "gift had been only cultivated as an amusement."


Excerpted from Whistler by Daniel E. Sutherland. Copyright © 2014 Daniel E. Sutherland. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Preface xiv

Acknowledgments xvii

1 Jamie, My Boy - 1834-1849 1

2 Anything for a Quiet Life - 1849-1854 17

3 Bohemian Rhapsody - 1854-1858 33

4 Portraits and Self-Portraits - 1858-1861 51

5 Rebellion and Notoriety - 1861-1863 67

6 Homage to Whistler - 1864-1866 83

7 Trouble in Paradise - 1866-1869 99

8 Butterfly - 1870-1873 115

9 Peacocks and Nocturnes - 1874-1877 131

10 Trials - 1877-1879 148

11 Death and Transfiguration - 1879-1880 166

12 The Butterfly Rampant - 1881-1883 181

13 Art is upon the Town - 1884-1885 197

14 Explanations and Expectations - 1886-1888 215

15 Games and Honors, Various - 1888-1890 231

16 Scotland is Brave, but Vive La France! - 1891-1892 249

17 A New Life, New markets, New Friends - 1893-1894 264

18 Litigation and the Lamp - 1894-1895 276

19 I Journey by Myself - 1896-1897 291

20 President and Master, Redux - 1898-1900 307

21 Off the Treadmill - 1901-1902 322

22 The Evening Mist - 1903-1908 335

Abbreviations 348

Notes 351

Bibliographical Note 418

Index 420

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Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
steveiewoolf More than 1 year ago
James Abbot Whistler (he would add his mother’s maiden of McNeill later in his life) was born in the busy mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834 (though he would come to deny that place of birth in an attempt to remove, “the taint of Lowell” from his life when writing his biographical sketch for the American Who’s Who) to a mother whose family came from the plebeian North Carolina, (something else Whistler would deny stating that his mother’s family came from the aristocratic South Carolina).  His father George Washington Whistler was a West Point graduate and that U.S. Military Academy made him an engineer. His excellence in the field of railroad engineering brought him to the attention of Tsar Nicholas I who hired him to build a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The young Whistler spent five years in Russia and during that time his love of art bloomed. The renowned artist Sir William Allan, who was in Russia to paint the history of Peter the Great, told Whistler’s mother that her son had an “uncommon genius”. This ‘genius’ went on to become arguably one of the most influential painters of the 19th century. Whistler was influenced over the years by many artists, notably Velasquez and Courbet, and was also influenced by Courbet’s Realism and especially Oriental art which continued to fascinate him throughout his whole life. His style of realism became known as Naturalism. However, over the years he easily moved through different styles of art and also through different mediums of art becoming an expert and an innovator in anything he done. Walter Sickert declared to a friend, “Such a man! The only painter alive who has first immense genius, then conscientious persistent work striving after his ideal”. But Whistler “espoused no doctrine, proposed no laws, even though he spoke constantly the science of art.” The important factor in art, for Whistler was ‘delicacy’ a tenderness, neatly and nicety. Not only is this the first Whistler biography in 20 years but it is the first to make extensive use of the artist’s private correspondence. That ‘extensive use’ shines through this book like light through stained glass. The author Daniel E Sutherland has taken the chiaroscuro printed page of Whistler’s private correspondence and thrown beautiful colours onto the page in the form of wonderful insights and satisfyingly brought the artist to life to such an extent as one feels that Whistler is the room as you read. Being a lover of art I have to admit that like most people I believed him as nothing more than a  dandy, a dilettante, an egoist who ‘stole’ from other artists and created only one masterpiece, An Arrangement in Grey and Black colloquially and erroneously known as Whistler’s Mother. Thanks to Mr Sutherland my mind has now filed that belief under ‘short-sightedness’.  One of the main raison d’êtres of a literary or artistic biography is to have today’s and future generations to not only re-evaluate the biography’s subject but to instil a need to read the books or see the paintings. This biography achieves that in the proverbial spades. I have already been searching online to see which paintings can be seen in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The author has achieved a wonderful biography that has been written in a clear, comprehensive and entertaining manner. Mr Sutherland has managed to achieve that difficult task of writing a biography that is at once both entertaining and intelligent. This has to be the definitive biographical work on Whistler and I pity and writer who attempts to write one in the future. I will leave you with the words of Arthur Symons; “He talked of art, certainly for art’s sake, with the passionate reverence of the lover, and with the joyous certainty of one who knows himself loved.”