These are the 12 most famous paintings by James McNeill Whistler. This American-born, British-based painter was the creator of the famous bohemian statement “art for the sake of art” (l’art pour l’art). He was a leader in the Aesthetic Movement which stood for the value of aesthetics and beauty in arts, music, and literature over its political or sociological meaning.
Whistler was influenced by the work of 17th-century artists, such as Rembrandt or Velázquez, but also by ancient Greek sculptures. He finished over 500 paintings, etchings, pastels, watercolours, drawings, and lithographs.
Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Whistler’s Mother (1871)
By far the most famous painting by James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, also known as Portrait of Artist’s Mother, is one of the most famous American paintings and is known as a Victorian Mona Lisa. The seated woman is Anna McNeill Whistler, the artist’s mother who was around the age of 67 when she posed. Whistler originally imagined his mother standing but she was too uncomfortable to pose standing for longer periods of time.
Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter (1872)
This painting shows a strong Japanese influence and depicts the artist himself in a very restrained and earnest pose. It was painted in his studio in Paris in Rue Campagne Premiere during a time he was extremely influenced by the work of Rembrandt.
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862)
The girl is shown in full figure, standing on wolf skin, dressed in a white dress, and holding a white lily in her left hand. As the title quotes, the tone of this frail painting is white. As Whistler was known as the artist who created “for the sake of art”, he said, “My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain”.
Alice Butt (1895)
The girl, sitting in front of a red background is looking directly at the observer. Even though little is known about Alice, in the final years of the 19th century Whistler toured poor neighbourhoods in London and painted people who he found interesting. He drew innocent children who had a hard life and wore ragged clothes.
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874)
This painting is one of his many works from the series of Nocturne paintings – a term coined by Whistler himself to explain a style that shows scenes evocative of the night and people in the absence of direct light. The painting, today considered to be the high point of his middle period, caused a lot of controversies back in the 19th century. A very renowned critic called John Ruskin accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. This criticism led to Whistler’s financial difficulties, and he decided to sue Ruskin, but the trial was disastrous for the artist. He lost and had to declare bankruptcy. Despite this, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket is considered in the modern day to be one of the most famous painting by James McNeill Whistler.
The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863–1865)
La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine shows a European woman wearing a Japanese garment – kimono, surrounded by other Asian art objects such as a folding screen and porcelain vase. This impressionistic painting with exaggerated Japanese influence can be explained by the current trend of the Anglo-Japanese style popularized in the 1860s and Art Noveau, an international style popular in the Belle Époque period.
Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle (1872–1873)
This painting depicts Thomas Carlyle, a writer of the Victorian era who heavily influenced 19th-century art and philosophy. Whistler and Carlyle liver near each other in Chelsea (central London) and when the philosopher visited Whistler’s painting studio and saw the painting of his mother, he stated that he loved the simplicity of it and that he would like to be painted himself. According to Whistler, he arrived one morning, sat down in his studio and said, “And now, mon, fire away!”.
Symphony in White, No. 3 (1865–1867)
This painting shows two women, one lounging on the sofa while the other one is sitting on the floor but leaning on it with her upper body. The fact that Whistler was heavily influenced by Japanese art is confirmed by the fan on the floor. Judging by the title of the painting, the artist wanted to put emphasis on the composition itself, rather than emphasizing the subjects.
Harmony in Green and Rose the Music Room (1860)
This realistic painting, originally called The Morning Call is set in Whistler’s brother-in-law’s home. On the left, the woman reflected in the mirror is the artist’s half-sister Deborah, and the seated girl is his niece, Annie. The woman who is standing dressed in black is Isabella, married into his brother-in-law’s family. This painting is carefully angled so that if shows the flatness of the picture plane.
Little Rose of Lyme Regis (1895)
This painting of a young girl, looking directly at the viewer, was done during his visit to the British coastal resort town of Lyme Regis in the 1890s. The girl, Rose Randall was the daughter of the town’s mayor, and it was one of the small group studies he took as a tribute to the children he called “the little Lyme Regis maidens”.
The Peacock Room (1864)
Frederick Richards Leyland was one of the wealthiest British shipowners in the late 19th century who bought Whistler’s painting The Princess from the Land of Porcelain. The artist suggested that he should arrange the room he was displaying it in, so he hired an architect Thomas Jekyll while Whistler painted the panelled room in blue, green and gold. Even today, this is considered to be one of the greatest Aesthetic interior designs and examples of the famous Anglo-Japanese style.
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge (1872)
Arguably the most famous painting by James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge shows the old Battersea Bridge in London that no longer exists due to its bad and dangerous design. In the distance on the right half of the painting are fireworks, and with the city mist, the viewer gets an atmospheric effect, influenced by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. On the left part of the painting is the Anglican Chelsea Old Church while to the right is Albert Bridge.
What famous paintings by James McNeill Whistler do you think we should add to this list? Comment below.