Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Artist of the Week: James Whistler

The American painter, etcher, and lithographer James Whistler created a new set of principles for the fine arts, championed art for art's sake, and introduced a subtle style of painting in which atmosphere and mood were the main focus. Whistler was an American-born, British-based artist. James Whistler used a butterfly as his signature for his paintings.

The butterfly was unique in that it possessed a long stinger on it's tail. Whistler's signature fit him well for it combined both aspects of his personality. Whistler was known to have a difficult public persona, yet his artwork was often delicate like a butterfly.

In 1862 James Whistler started to work on "Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl" (shown at top of page). The model was once again his mistress, Jo. This controversial painting brought Whistler's name to the forefront in the art world. Shown in London first and then in Paris, it provoked a buzz of irrelevant interpretation. The expressionless young woman in virginal white, standing on a wolf skin with a lily in her hand (that floral emblem of the Aesthetic Movement), was declared to be a bride on the morning after her wedding night; or a fallen ex-virgin; or a victim of mesmerism - anything except what she actually was: a model posing in Whistler's studio to give him a pretext to paint shades of white with extreme virtuosity and subtlety

Although The White Girl was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1862 and the Paris Salon of 1863, it was a sensation at the Salon des Refus├ęs, admired by artists though laughed at by the public.In 1863 Whistler leased a house in the Chelsea section of London, where he set up housekeeping with Jo. His mother arrived late that year and spent the rest of her life in England.
Whistler’s mother was both a religious and very proper woman, and her arrival in London, upset her son’s bohemian existence. As he wrote to Henri Fantin-Latour, “General upheaval!! I had to empty my house and purify it from cellar to eaves.” Whistler became a collector of blue-and-white porcelain as well as Oriental costumes, in which he posed his models for such pictures as La Princess du pays de la porcelaine (1864). By 1871, Whistler returned to portraits and soon produced his most famous painting, the nearly monochromatic full-length figure titled "Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother", but usually referred to as Whistler's Mother.  According to a letter from his mother, one day after a model failed to appear, Whistler turned to his mother and suggested he do her portrait. In his typically slow and experimental way, at first he had her stand but that proved too tiring so the famous profile pose was adopted. It took dozens of sittings to complete. 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.

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