Whistler may be remembered for his painting of his mother, but the etchings of Victorian life on the River Thames and around Wapping resonate strongly and capture the bustle, squalor and sheer volume of traffic on the river in those days. He was inspired by and incorporated many influences in his art, and was adept in many media, with over 500 paintings, as well as etchings, pastels, watercolours, drawings, and lithographs. Whistler insisted that it was the artist's obligation to interpret what he saw, not be a slave to reality, and to "bring forth from chaos glorious harmony". He impacted both European and US artists and exchanged ideas and ideals with Realist, Impressionist, and Symbolist painters. During a trip to Venice in 1880, Whistler created a series of etchings and pastels and influenced the way in which artists and photographers interpreted the city by focusing on the back alleys, side canals, entrance ways, and architectural patterns. His etchings of London and the Thames river life follow the same vein. He was also responsible for the Society of British Artists becoming “Royal”.
James Abbott Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1834. His father being a highly sought after railroad engineer, enabled the family to travel widely with his job and in 1842 Nicholas I of Russia offered Whistler's father spent time in Paris and London before he went to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father had taught drawing. After West Point, Whistler worked as draftsman mapping the entire U.S. coast for military and maritime purposes. Whistler turned down his mother's suggestions for other more practical careers and informed her that he was setting out to further his art training in Paris. Whistler never returned to the United States.
Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855, rented a studio in the Latin Quarter, and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. Whistler was introduced to the circle of Gustave Courbet, which included Carolus-Duran (later the teacher of John Singer Sargent), Alphonse Legros, and Édouard Manet. Whistler painted his first exhibited work, La Mere Gerard in 1858.
In 1859 Whistler adopted London as his home, while regularly visiting friends in France. After returning to Paris for a time, Whistler painted his first famous work, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. The portrait of his mistress and business manager Joanna Hiffernan and some considered it a painting in the Pre-Raphaelite manner. The portrait was refused for exhibition at the conservative Royal Academy, but was shown in a private gallery under the title The Woman in White. In 1863 it was shown at the Salon des Refusés in Paris, an event sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III for the exhibition of works rejected from the Salon.
In 1866, Whistler decided to visit Chile, which was at war with Spain and he produced the first of his three nocturnal paintings ("nocturnes"—night scenes of the harbor painted with a blue or light green palette). After he returned to London, he painted several more nocturnes over the next ten years, many of the River Thames. When Edgar Degas invited Whistler to exhibit with the first show by the Impressionists in 1874, Whistler turned down the invitation, as did Manet.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 resulted in many artists taking refuge in England and joining Whistler, including Camille Pissarro and Monet. Like Whistler, Monet and Pissarro both focused their efforts on views of the city, and exposed Whistler to the evolution of Impressionism founded by these artists and that they had seen his nocturnes.
In 1877 Whistler sued the critic John Ruskin for libel after the critic condemned his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Ruskin, who had been a champion of the Pre-Raphaelites and J. M. W. Turner, reviewed Whistler's work in his publication Fors Clavigera on July 2, 1877. Ruskin praised Burne-Jones, while he attacked Whistler:
It was heard at the Queen's Bench of the High Court on November 25 and 26 of 1878. With Ruskin's witnesses more impressive, including Edward Burne-Jones, and with Ruskin absent for medical reasons, Whistler's counter-attack was ineffective. Nonetheless, the jury reached a verdict in favour of Whistler, but awarded a mere farthing in nominal damages, and the court costs were split. The cost of the case, bankrupted him by May 1879, resulting in an auction of his work, collections, and house. Whistler published his account of the trial in the pamphlet Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics, included in his later The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890), in December 1878, soon after the trial. Whistler's grand hope that the publicity of the trial would rescue his career was dashed as he lost rather than gained popularity among patrons because of it.
After the trial, Whistler received a commission to do twelve etchings in Venice. The three-month assignment stretched to fourteen months. During this exceptionally productive period, Whistler finished over fifty etchings, several nocturnes, some watercolours, and over 100 pastels. Back in London, the pastels sold particularly well.
In January 1881, Anna Whistler died. In his mother's honour, thereafter, he publicly adopted her maiden name McNeill as a middle name.
Whistler joined the Society of British Artists in 1884, and on June 1, 1886, he was elected president. The following year, during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, Whistler presented to the Queen, on the Society's behalf, an elaborate album including a lengthy written address and illustrations that he made. Queen Victoria so admired "the beautiful and artistic illumination" that she decreed henceforth, "that the Society should be called Royal."