Whistler, without his Mother, at the Art Institute

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Major museums like the Art Institute in Chicago always have special exhibits, and one that was on display when we visited with Yuliya in August was an exhibit of portraits and drawings of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), the American artist and raconteur, who spent a good deal of time in London. In fact he was based in England, even though he was born in Lowell Massachusetts. A child of privilege, his family moved first to Stonington Conn. for a couple of years and then to Springfield Mass. and lived in a large posh house. The family wealth came from the railroad industry. In fact George, the father was something of an innovator when it came to all things railroad, and he was invited to come to Russia by Czar Nicholas and build a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow. And so the family actually moved to Russia in 1842. It was in Russia that James was enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. In 1847-48, James and his mother spent some time in London where James inclinations to pursue an art career were furthered. When the family returned to the States, it was because father George had died of cholera, and they returned to Conn. where his mother came from. She sent James off to a Christian school hoping he would become a minister. He was not so inclined. In fact in a surprise, he went off to West Point!! At the time Robert E Lee was the headknocker there, and after putting up with Whistler’s poor grades, poor attitude, and generally combative demeanor for as long as he could, he sent him home. After several abortive attempts at jobs, James moved to Paris in 1855 to study painting. He was eventually introduced to the circle of Manet, and began to do paintings that some have called early Impressionistic in style. For example, consider this painting of foggy London…

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Or consider this painting of the artist in his studio….
ai3 This was painted in about 1865.

While Whistler was an interesting painter, he was, much like his acquaintance, Oscar Wilde, much more of a literary personality during his lifetime. Some would call him a dandy. You get a sense of his personality from various of the paintings and drawings done of him in this exhibit. Consider the following. ai4

This painting was done by the English artist, Walter Greaves. One needs to understand that Whistler had quite a following, as is clear from the following painting by Max Beerbohm, another English artist.
ai5 The rather snarky title of this painting is ‘Burning Incense to Whistler’. Here are two further sketches of the man, one depicting him a bit like Mark Twain, another of his contemporaries.
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Of course Whistler later became most famous for a portrait of an old woman, which he called Arrangement in Grey and Black. It was in fact a portrait of his own mother, hence the common title of the painting.
1280px-Whistlers_Mother_high_res This painting is in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. The painting became a huge hit with Americans at the Chicago World Fair, and in 1934 a stamp was issued with this painting on it. Whistler had become famous in America…..but mainly after his death. He himself ended up on a U.S. stamp in 1940.


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