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James McNeill Whistler and the Case for Beauty

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The original art star, Whistler was a caustic wit and man-about-town. For the first time, a film examines the biography of the man and the course of his career. Best known for his painting popularly called “Whistler’s Mother,” by his death, Whistler was one of the most recognized artists in Europe and is today placed in the first rank of modern painters.

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About the Show

In the fall of 1855, at the age of 21, a young aspiring artist named James McNeill Whistler (1834-1901) left the United States for France, to study art. He would live the rest of his life abroad, mostly in London, where he would achieve fame in his lifetime as the painter of a portrait best known today as "Whistler’s Mother" and today, as the artist whose devotion to beauty advanced the 20th-century art form known as abstraction.

Whistler cut through London with a caustic wit, prickly personality and mannered style that drew attention to his work in a competitive art marketplace. Sporting patent leather pumps and a monocle, his theatrics attracted the curiosity of potential buyers and his barbed exchanges with art critics kept him in the public eye. When one critic accused him of flinging “a pot of paint” in the face of the public with his impressionistic paintings, he sued for libel, went to court and changed the course of art history.

Celebrated for his impact on the visual arts, he was an important figure in the artistic and literary swirl of his time. His friends included Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas; like them, he encouraged “an entirely new way of seeing.” His breakaway approach to art moved painting toward abstraction, sparked a renaissance in printmaking and resulted in the Peacock Room, a masterpiece of interior design.

Born in Massachusetts, he spent his childhood in Russia, where his father had been hired by Czar Nicholas I to engineer a railroad between Moscow and St. Petersburg. He attended West Point but was dismissed for an abundance of demerits. But in the studio he was a tireless worker. In his mid-20s, his work was presented at London’s prestigious exhibitions, but he rejected this almost certain path to wealth and fame in favor of a new approach dismissed by most critics. Advocating “art for art’s sake,” he devoted himself to making beautiful pictures, and in the process created controversial, nearly abstract paintings that set the stage for the artistic advances of the 20th century.

After declaring bankruptcy at 45, he spent the next decade building support for his work. By the 1890s, when "Whistler’s Mother" was purchased for the Louvre, he had become one of the most recognized artists in all of Europe. Critics compared him to Velázquez and Rembrandt, placing him in the first rank of modern painters, calling him the greatest artistic genius that America ever produced.

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