James McNeill Whistler: Seven Landscapes

23 Feb

James McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Blue and Silver, Trouville (1865)

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but left the United States at the age of twenty-one and never returned.  He lived as an expatriate, dividing his time between London and Paris.  Whistler was famous for his abrasive wit and great artistic talent.  His work is not easily placed in any specific school or tradition and in modern times this has resulted in his art being frequently overlooked.

James McNeill Whistler, The Ocean (1866)

Note: click on any image to enlarge

In broad terms, Whistler’s style comes close to Symbolist — many of his landscapes have a moody, ethereal quality that seems as much the terrain of dreams as of the real world.  In a number of his landscapes, especially his famous Nocturnes, Whistler used a novel compositional technique in which he painted from memory rather than from sustained, direct observation.  He would memorize the main forms and then put them on the painting surface without ever returning to the subject.  This results in a simplified composition that is quite reminiscent of Asian art.

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver, Chelsea (1871)

In fact, Whistler was one of the first artists in Europe to embrace Japanese art, and he owes a particular debt to Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858).  Compare Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge (below top) with Hiroshige’s Kyobashi Bridge (below bottom).

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge (c. 1872-75)

Ando Hiroshige, Kyobashi Bridge (date unknown)

To facilitate his technique of painting from memory, Whistler completed his landscapes rapidly, using thinned oil paint.  Much like plein air painters, Whistler would complete these landscapes in a single painting session.  This is in stark contrast to his figure painting method, in which he would often labor for years over a composition, executing and fine-tuning until he was completely satisfied.

James McNeill Whistler, Cremorne Gardens No. 2 (c. 1872-77)

Whistler was also quite interested in design, and went to great lengths to ensure that his art was placed in the best possible viewing space.  Indeed it was Whistler who pioneered the modern, “sparse” art gallery — before Whistler, galleries frequently hung paintings all over the walls, from floor to ceiling.  It is even reported that, at Whistler’s insistence, gallery attendants at showings of his work were required to dress in colors that harmonized with the paintings on display!

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket (1875)

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Gold, St. Mark’s Venice (c. 1879-80)

Egotistical and eccentric, yet hugely talented, James McNeill Whistler is one of the greats and his art is enjoying a well-deserved resurgence.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

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