James Abbott McNeill Whistler: The First American Modernist

Have you ever heard of James Abbott McNeill Whistler? Probably not.

Whistler was the first American Modernist … the very first of a type which is familiar in our times. He had a very unusual life which took him from the antebellum United States to Russia and to Western Europe where he became a renowned artist in France and Britain in the late 19th century.

The following excerpt comes from Robert M. Crunden’s book American Salons: Encounters With European Modernism, 1885-1917:

“The conflicts of his life took their toll on Whistler’s art and personality. At times he could not paint at all: at other times he failed to live up to his own standards and destroyed his work or left it incomplete. The stupidity of the criticism he received not only irritated him, it reinforced all the unfortunate tendencies which an erratic childhood, great talent, and a censorious mother all seemed to encourage. Under stress, Whistler became a caricature of the whimsical, brutal Russian aristocrat and the Southern, slave-whipping gentleman. He dressed exquisitely, served enchanting meals, and decorated himself, his food, and his home so that guests would experience the complete ensemble. He cultivated quarrels with his friends, his mistresses, and his in-laws. He behaved so badly to those who commissioned work from him that he seemed to be courting disaster. He endured a painful bankruptcy and fourteen months in exile in Venice. Recovering, he returned to London, which he proceeded to dominate artistically for the next twenty years. His fame spread through continental Europe and even reached the United States. Sycophants followed him about, faithfully copying his mannerisms and repeating his jokes. Almost insensibly, the character traits of his childhood had become something which, for an American, was entirely new. Whistler had become The Artist: dressing differently from ordinary mortals, speaking differently, his every word and gesture as much a critique of philistia as his clothes. If they would not accept him, “Ha,ha!” one could hear his famous laugh, well, he preferred to have nothing to do with them. He would attend their parties and perhaps accept their commissions; he might even, if he so deigned, take their money. But he would scorn them, he would make them wait, sometimes for decades, before delivering the picture, if he delivered it at all. On occasion, he would deliver it only to reclaim it later for alterations, and then never return it. He was famous, gifted, notorious, charming and impossible by terms. If you wanted to be an artist, that was the way you behaved …

Finally, on February 1885, Whistler delivered “The Ten O’Clock” by memory to a crowded hall. Faultlessly attired in evening dress, he was the perfect opposite of the man of nature, appearing to one member of the press as “a jaunty, unabashed, composed, and self-satisfied gentleman, armed with an opera hat and an eyeglass.” Repeated a month later at Cambridge and a month after that at Oxford, the speech has gone down in history as the first official statement of modernist attitudes by an American.”


“The influential French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire called for ‘modern’ subject matter in art — an idea that increasingly gained support amongst younger artists. In 1859 Baudelaire disparaged the many tired and dull landscapes exhibited in Paris at the Salon that year, and he urged artists to choose alternative subjects, including cityscapes, ‘a genre which I can only call the landscape of great cities’. Conscious of Baudelaire’s remarks – and inspired by Charles Meryon’s captivating series of etchings of ‘the hidden Paris’, of 1850–54 – Whistler began making etchings of London, seeking to capture the essence of little known aspects of the English capital. In 1860 he decided to stay in London to continue his work, and he spent two months living in the East End, exploring that part of the city. The River Thames at that time was virtually a quagmire of dirt and disease, framed by buildings, sometimes derelict, sometimes overcrowded. Whistler produced evocative images of the Thames and its surrounds, its people and its haunts — land, water and cityscapes. His series of Sixteen etchings of scenes on the Thames, which came to be known as the ‘Thames set’, was completed in 1861.”


“In 1862 the French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire described James McNeill Whistler’s images of the River Thames in London as “a marvelous tangle of rigging, yardarms and rope; a chaos of fog, furnaces and gushing smoke; the profound and complicated poetry of a vast capital.” London was the capital of the United Kingdom and of the British Empire. The Thames was a global waterway and a hub of international trade and transport. During the nineteenth century, it served as a vital artery for the movement and the exchange of coal and other goods that drove Britain’s economy. Raw materials and products (including cocoa, sugar, and molasses) were sourced by colonized peoples throughout the empire and were transported by ship to warehouses along the Thames. Whistler observed this commercial activity and his depictions of the wharves, docks, factories, and laborers reveal an economic network that intertwined empire, industry, and environment. River Works examines this network and places Whistler’s art within the industrial-imperial system of the nineteenth century—a system whose legacies continue to inform our world today.”


“But the American-born, French-trained artist James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), who adopted London as his home in 1859, wasn’t necessarily depicting nature’s storms along the River Thames. The Thames has long inspired painters as diverse as Canaletto, J.M.W. Turner and, stirred in part by Whistler,Claude Monet and André Derain. During the 19th century, London was the busiest, dirtiest port city in the West. The Thames was teeming with barges, ferries, clippers, schooners and steamships. Crowding its shores were docks, shipbuilders, warehouses, pubs, ironworks, factories and feedlots. Thruway and dumping ground, the waterway was thronged with workers and sightseers and was ripe with refuse, rotting horse carcasses and raw sewage.

This period of smoggy, foggy London (most notably the summer of 1858) was known as the great miasma—the big stink. But its freneticism and brilliant-colored atmospheric haze appealed in all seasons to innovative artists like Whistler, who took to heart the call of his friend the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire for paintings that expressed “the heroism of modern life.” London’s “modern life” would spur Whistler to create pictures that contributed to the birth of Impressionism and, through his dark “Nocturnes,” to that of abstraction.”

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was friends with Charles Baudelaire and Édouard Manet in Paris where their circle was pioneering Modernism.

Musée d’Orsay:

“We do not know when the “strong affinity” appeared that brought Manet and Baudelaire together, a friendship that was to last until the death of the author of the Flowers of Evil in 1867.

Since his first articles on the Salon and its dispiriting, unvarying routine, Baudelaire had been trying to convert Romanticism into Modernity – he would be for the visual arts what Balzac had been for the novel.

It matters little in the end that Baudelaire never openly acknowledged Manet as “the painter of modern life”, the expression he applied in 1863 to the brilliant press illustrator Constantin Guys. …”

Smart History:

“Manet’s complaint—”They are raining insults upon me!” to his friend Charles Baudelaire pointed to the overwhelming negative response his painting Olympia received from critics in 1865. Baudelaire (an art critic and poet) had advocated for an art that could capture the “gait, glance, and gesture” of modern life, and, although Manet’s painting had perhaps done just that, its debut at the salononly served to bewilder and scandalize the Parisian public. 

Olympia features a nude woman reclining upon a chaise lounge, with a small black cat at her feet (image above), and a black female servant behind her brandishing a bouquet of flowers (image below). It struck viewers—who flocked to see the painting—as a great insult to the academic tradition. And of course it was. One could say that the artist had thrown down a gauntlet. The subject was modern—maybe too modern, since it failed to properly elevate the woman’s nakedness to the lofty ideals of nudity found in art of antiquity —she was no goddess or mythological figure. As the art historian Eunice Lipton described it, Manet had “robbed,” the art historical genre of nudes of “their mythic scaffolding…”[1] Nineteenth-century French salon painting (sometimes also called academic painting—the art advocated by the Royal Academy) was supposed to perpetually return to the classical past to retrieve and reinvent its forms and ideals, making them relevant for the present moment. In using a contemporary subject (and not Venus), Manet mocked that tradition and, moreover, dared to suggest that the classical past held no relevance for the modern industrial present.

As if to underscore his rejection of the past, Manet used as his source a well-known painting in the collection of the Louvre—Venus of Urbino, a 1538 painting by the Venetian Renaissance artist Titian (image above)—and he then stripped it of meaning. To an eye trained in the classical style, Olympia was clearly no respectful homage to Titian’s masterpiece; the artist offered instead an impoverished copy. In place of the seamlessly contoured voluptuous figure of Venus, set within a richly atmospheric and imaginary world, Olympia was flatly painted, poorly contoured, lacked depth, and seemed to inhabit the seamy, contemporary world of Parisian prostitution.

Why, critics asked, was the figure so flat and washed out, the background so dark? Why had the artist abandoned the centuries-old practice of leading the eye towards an imagined vanishing point that would establish the fiction of a believable space for the figures to inhabit? For Manet’s artistic contemporaries, however, the loose, fluid brushwork and the seeming rapidity of execution were much more than a hoax. In one stroke, the artist had dissolved classical illusionism and re-invented painting as something that spoke to its own condition of being a painted representation. …

Manet had created an artistic revolution: a contemporary subject depicted in a modern manner. It is hard from a present-day perspective to see what all the fuss was about. Nevertheless, the painting elicited much unease and it is important to remember—in the absence of the profusion of media imagery that exists today—that painting and sculpture in nineteenth-century France served to consolidate identity on both a national and individual level. And here is where the Olympia’s subversive role resides. Manet chose not to mollify anxiety about this new modern world of which Paris had become a symbol. For those anxious about class status (many had recently moved to Paris from the countryside), the naked woman in Olympia coldly stared back at the new urban bourgeoisie looking to art to solidify their own sense of identity. Aside from the reference to prostitution—itself a dangerous sign of the emerging margins in the modern city—the painting’s inclusion of a black woman tapped into the French colonialist mindset while providing a stark contrast for the whiteness of Olympia. The black woman also served as a powerful emblem of “primitive” sexuality, one of many fictions that aimed to justify colonial views of non-Western societies.

Édouard Manet groundbreaking painting “Olympia” was first exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon.

About Hunter Wallace 12366 Articles
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  1. In some ways, I think that best descriptor for Whistler would be “reactionary modernist,”

    I particularly like that you quoted from Crunden, who is perhaps the most undeservedly ignored scholar of conservatism. You might like his volume “The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900-45.” It is a great book of readings, drawing from Santayana, Ralph Adams Cram, Albert J. Nock, The Tennessee Agrarians, and others.

  2. Hunter, are you going to do anything on Ezra Pound and how does or doesn’t fit into the modernist genre?

    • “Who hasn’t heard of Whistler’s Mother?”

      Blacks and 98% of other nonwhites. If they saw a reproduction of it their faces would pucker with disgust. “Pffff! Why we hasta see dis ole white lady?”

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