Blogger’s Note: This post has been adapted from the research I did for my MA qualifying project, and I hope it will help to familiarize you with not only my work but my style. A major reason I’ve been drawn to Whistler’s work is the pervasive interest in waterscapes and watercraft shown throughout his corpus. As I’ll begin to unpack here, too, his work and biography are deserving of more critical attention. Historical figures are rarely as simple—or as innocent—as they are often made out to be.
James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), an American expat and major figure of nineteenth-century European and American art, was and remains best known for his disavowal of the more communicative functions of art in favor of what he espoused as “art for art’s sake,” an idea he preached publicly and vociferously. Whistler has also been noted for his big, entertaining, if also irascible, personality, a reputation he carefully cultivated. His biography is littered with coming-to-blows episodes with patrons and colleagues. Whistler actually published the correspondence from these episodes in a memoir of sorts, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Often described as “cosmopolitan,” Whistler’s transnationalism certainly did inform his artwork, not least through his sometimes-radical adaptations of East Asian aesthetics. One aspect of his career that has been overshadowed by his flamboyant personality and artistic innovations is that Whistler was an artist in an age of empire. The effects and influence of imperialism were not only formative but informed some key works of his mature career. These key works include the etchings in his Naval Review set from 1887.