JAMES MCNEILL WHISTLER was as renowned for his radically spare, avant-garde exhibition designs and flamboyant, self-promotional personality as for his artwork. His abrasive and colorful personal style had a profound impact on European and American art. He was the first to declare "Art for Art's Sake," giving his paintings simple names such as "Symphony in White," in the hope that the public would view the entire composition rather than the image the artist suggested by referencing a title.
Marking the centenary of his death is the exhibition "Mr. Whistler's Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London," which re-creates "Arrangement in White and Yellow," and "Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey," two of Whistler's most famous and influential installations. Both were controversial and radically innovative as they challenged long-standing assumptions about the presentation of art. They featured identically framed canvases, hung widely apart, on plain, lightly colored walls--in moderately sized but elegantly appointed rooms--at a time when exhibitions routinely displayed pieces from floor to ceiling with no space between frames.
Whistler's "Arrangement in White and Yellow" opened in February, 1883, at the Fine Art Society in London, showcasing 51 of his etchings, most of which had been completed in Venice in 1879-80. Another landmark exhibit, "Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey," opened in May, 1884, at Dowdeswells' Gallery in London and juxtaposed one life-size portrait of a female model with 66 smaller works. Subjects included scenes of Chelsea (Whistler's neighborhood in London), the Cornish coast, nocturnes set in both London and Amsterdam, and a series of watercolor drawings depicting female models in Whistler's studio.
Whistler was born in 1834 in Lowell, Mass., studied art in Paris from 1855-59, and spent most of the rest of his life in London. He never allied himself with any particular school or style, stubbornly setting himself apart from his contemporaries. As a student, Whistler was strongly influenced by 17th-century Spanish and Dutch art, though he would not visit Amsterdam until 1863. His earliest important oil paintings evidence the realism of Gustave Courbet, featuring the commonplace subjects and vigorous brushwork modeled after the older artist's work. One of the most successful of these is the frigid December scene "The Thames in Ice," (1860). It emphasizes the brooding hulk of a flat-bottomed collier brig used to haul coal, fish, and other heavy goods to London.
Whistler's style changed dramatically in the 1860s. Influenced by Greek sculpture, Asian porcelain, and Japanese prints, he cast aside the idea that the success of a piece of art could be measured by its accuracy as a representation, or the effectiveness with which it told a story or suggested a moral. Instead, he became convinced that an object of oat was best understood as an autonomous creation, to be valued only for its success in organizing color and line into a formally satisfying--and therefore beautiful--whole. Abandoning the idea that paintings should create the illusion of pictorial depth, he developed the flatter, more purely decorative style that he is best known for. This shift is evident in transitional works such as "Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony" (1864-70), but was not complete until the early 1870s, when Whistler began to paint the moody night scenes and restrained portraits that made him famous.
Whistler formally had rejected Courbet's vision of Realism and set out to rebuild his art from scratch. This move toward what was later termed "Aestheticism" led to his greatest creative successes. Aestheticism greatly simplified compositions, reduced portraits to single figures, and employed a limited range of colors. The perfect subject for this severe style was, of course, the fiercely puritanical "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother," produced in 1871. …