Saturday, February 15, 2014

Whistler, James Abbott McNeill

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen
oil on wood panel
50.1 x 68.5 cm
The Smithsonian's Museum of Asian Art, Washington, DC, USA

In the painting a young woman, dressed in a Japanese kimono, is looking at oriental woodblock prints. The woodblock prints are probably by Ando Hiroshigi. Whistler was a great collector of oriental art and porcelain and sometimes used items from his own collections in his paintings. There was a great deal of Japanese influence on art and decoration in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The model is a red haired Irish beauty who was Whistler's mistress and the model in several of his paintings. Whistler designed the frame and decorated it with Asian motifs, including badges of palm leaves and paulownia blossoms, in imitation of Japanese family crests.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834?1903) was an American-born, British-based artist, active mainly in England. He made copies in the Louvre, acquired a lasting admiration for Velazquez, and became a devotee of the cult of the Japanese print and oriental art and decoration in general. As a leading proponent of the credo "art for art's sake", he walked his own path from the Realism of Courbet to an aesthetic approach. Egotistical, abrasive, and yet extremely talented, he stands as an isolated figure in art history, never directly associated with a specific style or school of painting. As a result, Whistler's work has in modern times rarely received the attention it deserves.

Whistler's art was characterized by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative. Finding a parallel between painting and music, he titled many of his paintings "arrangements", "harmonies", and "nocturnes", emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony.