Whistler Before Venice
Venice – at and around the time of James Abbott McNeill Whistler –
To lay the foundation of Whistler’s story it is valuable to delve into information in regards to this famed port city. The close of the eighteenth century marked the end of a thousand years of the Venetian city-state’s independent existence.[i] For some time Venice was in the possession of Austria after an agreement with the French Napoleon political ruler. The late 1800s were very much a time of transformation. Venice had become part of Italy, which was a newly unified country in 1861. The birth of this new nation did not come about simplistically. In addition, in the nineteenth century change also occurred because of modernization, new tools and technological advancements. Furthermore, these advancements brought with them new powers such as the press because the printed word was further emerging. In example of the voice of the press and Italy’s new found solidarity can be seen in the first official Venetian tourist guide which stated the city was Venetia, citta nobilissima et singolare (Venice, noble and unique city.)[ii] And the world had been officially invited to explore this newly formed modern country.
Venice was blossoming into a considerable place for tourism and foreign businessmen. This city was full of dashing Venetians and travelers alike. There were boroughs of areas filled with foreigners sometimes grouped by nationality in certain areas. According to Horace Gregory, “Venice was familiar with the well-to-do Englishman on holiday.”[iii] Some Englishmen would venture to this local on the lagoon for extended stays, James Abbott McNeill Whistler being one of them. This region of Italy was truly popular amongst creative individuals from many different corners of the world such Pierre- Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Henry James.
Whistler Before Venice
James Abbott McNeill Whistler came to Venice with his own history. He was born on July 11, 1834,in Lowell, Massachusetts[i], although his place of birth has been debated. It is believed his father who had been employed as a railroad engineer, may have brought his family to Russia (for a period of time) after his birth. Whistler who is considered an American expatriate is said to have “left for Europe in September 1855.”[ii] Whistler had the great good fortune to learn painting in Paris.[iii] As an artist he had the opportunity to study at the École Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin. James Abbott McNeill Whistler spent a good chunk of time in France but soon after he relocated to England. He moved to London in particular. It is believed he moved to the United Kingdom to be closer to members of his family.
It is challenging to place Whistler into just one artistic category. As an artist he wore many hats, he used different mediums and experimented with different styles. His art fell under the tonalism category and some consider him to be an Impressionist or associated with the Impressionism movement. The definition of the word impressionist is often used very loosely.[iv] It is hard to place Whistler into just one artistic category. All of the works done throughout his lifetime went through many stylistic changes. This maybe prompted by his experiences and or all the surroundings in the places he moved.
Although as an artist he was talented and successful, Whistler faced a good deal of artistic problems and rejections in France and England. At one point before his journey to Venice, Whistler found himself in a grim situation and was faced with an uncomfortable future. Whistler had been spending more than he could afford for quite some time and he we tangled in his political worries as well. After condemnation of Whistler’s art pieces by the art critic John Ruskin, “Whistler lost more commissions, and he sued Ruskin for libel. James Abbott McNeill Whistler won the court case” according to Getscher.[v] Despite this good outcome, his political battle left him dirt poor. At this point in time, he was fortunate to be rescued by the London’s Fine Art Society[vi]. Frances Spalding in Whistler describes how “The Fine Art Society provided him with one hundred and fifty pounds for a three- month visit.”[vii] In regards to his time in Venice his assignment (in great detail) is not published anywhere. In other words it doesn’t appear he was commissioned to depict specific subject matter. London’s Fine Art Society was an organization established in 1876 that supported and exhibited artworks and still operates today. The agreement between the Fine Art Society and James Abbott McNeill Whistler was important not only because it took Whistler’s artwork in a new direction but also as a result of this agreement the society orchestrated one of the first one man exhibits.
Whistler had hoped and planned to go to Venice some years earlier[viii], but because of his artistic projects such as the (commissioned) astounding interior mural painting entitled the Harmony and Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room it wasn’t possible. This work was completed for the wealthy British art collector Frederick Leyland. Finally, in mid-September Whistler left London and on the 19thhe reached Venice[ix]in 1879.
[i] Getscher, Robert H. James Abbott McNeill Whistler--pastels. New York: G. Braziller, 1991.Print.7.
[iii] Dunstan, Bernard. Painting Methods of the Impressionists. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1976. Print.146.
[v] Getscher, Robert H. James Abbott McNeill Whistler--pastels. New York: G. Braziller, 1991.Print.11.
[vi] Prideaux, Tom. The World of Whistler 1834-1903. New York: Time - Life, 1970. Print.131.
[vii] Spalding, Frances. Whistler. Oxford: Phaidon, 1979. Print.62.
[viii] Honour, Hugh, and John Fleming. The Venetian Hours of Henry James, Whistler, and Sargent. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. Print.36.