James Whistler. From Old Masters to Tonalism

James Whistler Self portrait
James Whistler. Self portrait. 1872. Detroit Institute of Arts, USA.

James Whistler (1834-1903) can hardly be called a true American. Growing up, he moved to Europe. And his childhood he spent … in Russia. His father built a railway in Saint Petersburg.

It was there that young James fell in love with art, when visiting the Hermitage and Peterhof thanks to his father’s connections (at that time, these palaces were still closed to the public).

What is Whistler famous for? Whatever style he applied in his paintings, from realism to tonalism*, you can almost immediately recognize him by two signs. Unusual colours and musical titles. A part of his portraits imitates the old masters. For example, his famous portrait of “The Artist’s Mother”.

James Whistler The artist’s mother
James Whistler. The Artist’s Mother. Arrangement in Grey and Black. 1871. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
The artist created an amazing painting using grey colours from light to dark ones. And a little of yellow. But it doesn’t mean that Whistler loved such colours. He was an extraordinary man. He could easily make a public appearance wearing yellow socks and carrying a bright umbrella.

Despite the fact that in those times men dressed only in black and grey. He has much brighter works than “The Mother”. For example, “Symphony in White”. The painting was called so by one of journalists at an exhibition. Whistler liked the idea. Since then, he gave musical titles to almost all of his works.
James Whistler Symphony in white no. 1
James Whistler. Symphony in White No. 1. 1862. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, USA.
But at that time, in 1862, the public didn’t like the “Symphony”. And again, it was due to an unusual colour composition preferred by Whistler. People considered it strange to paint a woman in white on the white background. The painting depicts Whistler’s red-haired lover. It’s the sort of thing the Pre

Raphaelites could do. After all, at the time, the artist was on friendly terms with one of the main founders of Pre-Raphaelism Gabriel Rossetti. A beauty, lilies, unusual elements (a wolf skin).

Everything as is right and proper. But Whistler quickly gave up Pre-Raphaelism. Since it was not external beauty that was important to him, but mood and emotions. And he created a new direction – tonalism. His landscapes-nocturnes in the style of tonalism really resembled music. Monochrome, plaintive.
Whistler said that such musical titles helped him to focus on painting itself, its lines and colour. Without thinking about the place and people being depicted.
James Whistler Nocturnes in Blue and silver: Chelsea
James Whistler. Nocturne in Blue and Silver: Chelsea. 1871. The Tate Gallery, London.

If my style of presenting information is close to you and you are interested in studying art, I can send you a free series of lessons to your email. For this, please fill in a simple form at this link.

About the author

Go to home page


Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

%d bloggers like this: