To advertise and defend his credo of art for art's sake, Whistler resorted to elaborate exhibits, lectures, polemics, and more than one lawsuit. In connection with his Falling Rocket: Nocturne in Black and Gold (Detroit Inst. of Arts) he sued Ruskin in 1878 for writing that Whistler asked “two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.” Whistler explained that the harmonious arrangement of light, form, and color was the most significant element of his paintings. To de-emphasize their subjective content, he called them by fanciful, abstract titles such as Nocturne in Black and Gold, and Arrangement in Gray and Black (the famed portrait of the artist's mother, 1872; Louvre). Whistler won the argument in court but payment of the court costs left him bankrupt.
Toward the end of his life Whistler won wide recognition for his admirable draftsmanship, exquisite color, and extreme technical proficiency both as painter and etcher. As an etcher he achieved a high reputation. More than 400 superb plates remain. He also excelled in lithography, watercolor, and pastel.
Fine examples of Whistler's painting are in the galleries of London, Paris, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York City. The most representative collection is that in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., which also contains an entire room that he decorated in a style that anticipated art nouveau, for the Leyland home in London—the so-called Peacock Room. Nocturne in Green and Gold, Cremorne Gardens at Night, portraits of Sir Henry Irving, Connie Gilchrist, Theodore Duret, and several others are all in the Metropolitan Museum. Other important works are his portrait of Thomas Carlyle (Glasgow) and Old Battersea Bridge (Tate Gall., London).
Whistler was the author of brilliant critical essays and aphorisms. The lecture published under the title Ten O'clock (1888) was of enormous influence in art theory. The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890) was a clever selection of snippets from the critics, accompanied by acerbic rejoinders from Whistler.
Used with permission. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright © 2001 Columbia University Press