Whistler was born in the city of Lowell in Massachusetts in 1834. In his late teens, he enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point. By his early twenties, however, he had left for Paris, with his heart set on becoming an artist.
He trained in the atelier of Charles Gleyre and soon became a friend of Gustave Courbet, whose work in the style of Realism proved an early influence. In 1859, Whistler moved to London, and for much of the rest of his career acted as a conduit of artistic ideas between the British and French capitals. Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl, for example, owes a debt to the Pre-Raphaelites.
That painting became a sensation upon its showing in both London and Paris — in part because the public associated it with Wilkie Collins’s hugely popular, recent mystery novel, The Woman in White.
In the 1860s, under the increasing influence of Japonisme, Whistler began producing landscapes in which he turned his back on naturalistic transcription. He opted instead for allusive subjects, flat decorative surfaces and subtle tonal harmonies. It is in the same vein that one can regard his Nocturne scenes of London from the following decade.
Whistler was a keen printmaker throughout his career too. Among his well-known works in this medium is a set of 50 etchings of Venice, produced over a period of 14 months spent in the city in 1879–80.
Whistler saw considerable parallels between art and music and took to giving his paintings musical titles. This even extended to portraits — such as that of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, which today is found in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
He was named as the first president of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in 1898. Whistler died five years later, aged 69.
In 2000, his painting Harmony in Grey, Chelsea in Ice sold for $2,866,000 at Christie’s — setting a record for the highest price paid for a work by Whistler at auction.
The Palaces, from the First Venice Set (Glasgow 223; Kennedy 187)