The Old Print Shop

James Abbott McNeill Whistler


James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American-born, British-based artist. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, his family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia for a few years in the 1840s, where his father worked as a civil engineer until his untimely demise. After a brief stay in London, where his uncle encouraged his artistic inclinations, the family returned to the United States. Whistler attended the West Point Military Academy for three year, and while he was ultimately dismissed for poor marks and bad behavior, he did learn mapmaking from Robert Walter Weir. He would use that knowledge to secure a brief job with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, where he was introduced to etching.

Displeased with his life in the United States, Whistler moved to Paris in 1855. He studied at the ecole Imperiale Speciale de Dessin before striking out on his own. He published his first etching set "Douze Eaux-Fortes d'apres Nature" in 1858. He then moved to England in 1859, where he found inspiration along the country's rivers. His unique style, however, and dedication to the creation of "art for the sake of art", rather than a fleeting sense of sentimentality, was ahead of its time.  He found little support from art critiques of the day. As such, he moved to Venice in 1879, where he remained for fourteen months, producing 50 etchings and many more drawings. The trip resulted in the "First Venice Set" (1880) and "Second Venice Set" (1886), both of which were published by the Fine Art Society in London. It was also during this time that Whistler developed the trend of removing the margins from his prints, leaving but a small tab for his distinctive butterfly signature.

As time went on and the aesthetic movement gained momentum, Whistler's work became more widely accepted and collected. His work is credited with inspiring an entire generation on both side of the Atlantic, and continues to do so even a century after his death.

"[Whistler] did better than attract a few followers and imitators; he influenced the whole world of art. Consciously, or unconsciously, his presence is felt in countless studios; his genius permeates modern artistic thought." - Lisa N. Peter's in her book "James McNeill Whistler" published by Smithmark in New York in 1996.