Reading by lamplight

James WHISTLER: artist

Not On Display

About the work

The first American artist to achieve world fame, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, was born in Massachusetts and embarked on a career different from his ultimate one by entering West Point Military Academy but was dismissed after three years.

His love of drawing prompted an appointment as a draughtsman in Washington and there he learned engraving and etching. At the age of twentyone he resigned and went to Paris to study art and to join in the Bohemian student life.

There were hidebound opinions held then that pictures had to tell a story and be realistically descriptive, so he had to struggle against derision for his new, more liberal ideas. His paintings were rejected by the Paris Salon but were included in the exhibition famous as the Salon des Refuses, among those of other artists destined to be renowned. Disillusioned at the lack of recognition he left Paris to live in London.

Black Lion Wharf from The Thames Set, also in the collection, is from this period and is one of his most famous etchings.

The strong influence on Whistler of the art of Diego Rodriguez de Silvar y Velasquez and Japanese prints is evident in his insistence on the importance of design, making a picture a pattern of decorative colour, line and tonal shapes. His choice of titles reflecting this attitude, such as Arrangement in Grey and Black for the portrait of his mother and Symphonie in White for another portrait caused caustic criticism and misunderstanding.

A series of Nocturnes, poetic renditions of the atmosphere of evening, roused conventional viewers to scorn and John Ruskin to stringent hostility. The well known lawsuit ensued when Whistler brought a libel action against Ruskin and was contemptuously awarded one farthing damages.

Bankrupt because of law costs and inability to sell pictures Whistler went to Venice on commission to produce a series of etchings. These began to be appreciated and from then on understanding of his work grew steadily. Dividing his time between London and Paris he found response more quickly in France but eventually acclaim was accorded also in England. Known through his writing as witty, outspoken, quarrelsome and volatile, his great artistic gifts were fully realised by artists and public alike before he died.

Ella Fry, Gallery Images, St George Books, Perth, 1984
Reading by lamplight
Artist/Maker and role
James WHISTLER: artist
25.5 x 19.8 cm (sheet, irregular)
15.8 x 11.8 cm (plate/image)
Credit line
Gift of Gold Estates of Australia (1903) Ltd, 1982
The State Art Collection, The Art Gallery of Western Australia
Accession number

This is one of the prints in our collection.