Old Pastel Master: James Whistler
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)
Whistler was an American-born, British-based artist. At age 21 he sailed to Europe after committing himself to become an artist. Among the others he met Edgar Degas in Paris whose friendship was very important to him as an artist. He emerged as an advocate of Aestheticism, movement that promoted the unity of art and design with credo “art for art’s sake”. Striving to make harmony between shape, color, light and line and finding a parallel between painting and music, Whistler titled many of his paintings “Symphony”, “Harmony”, and “Nocturne”. Emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony he became one of the founder of Tonalism. Famous signature for his paintings was a stylized butterfly. The symbol was appropriate, for it combined both aspects of his personality—his art was characterized by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative.
Whistler preferred to work outdoors but the unusually cold winter of 1880 made holding an etching needle or painting en plein aire with oils or watercolors impractical. Pastels, however, were an ideal medium. Whistler completed 90 pastels while in Venice, describing them in a letter to his dealer as being “totally new and of a brilliancy very different from the customary watercolor.”
In comparison to older and contemporary pastels, Whistler’s Venetian pastels were strikingly sketchy, with large areas of paper left blank. Criticized by a conservative contemporary critic as “vaguely incoherent,” the pastels are appealing to the modern eye. Whistler used color to indicate the magical effects of light on a Venice encased in winter. You can find collection of his Venice works in Whistler’s Venice book.
His most famous painting the iconic Whistler’s Mother, oil on canvas, made in 1871 is displayed in a frame of Whistler’s own design, and is now owned by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Upon this painting post stamp was made in memory and in honor of Mothers of America.
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