A key figure in British aestheticism and international modernism, Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. His father was a civil engineer who accepted a position on the Russian railroad in 1842, and Whistler began his art training in St Petersburg. In 1851 he entered the US Military Academy at West Point, from which he was expelled in 1854 for deficiency in chemistry. Later that year he accepted a position in the drawing division of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, Washington DC, staying only a few months. He moved to Paris for further art training, including a period in the studio of the neoclassical painter Charles Gleyre. In September of 1857, he visited the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester, where he saw works by Vel´zquez, as well as contemporary British painters. In 1858 he became friends with Henri Fantin-Latour and the two artists, along with Alphonse Legros, formed the Société des Trois. Whistler settled in London in 1859 and began work on his 'Thames Set' of etchings.
During the winter of 1861-1862, Whistler returned to Paris, where he painted 'Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl'. This painting was rejected for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1862, but 'The Coast of Brittany' and 'The Thames in Ice' were accepted. That summer he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the critic Algernon Swinburne, and in late December he moved to Chelsea. In 1863 'The White Girl' was rejected by the Paris Salon and exhibited at the Salon des Refusés, where it drew much attention. In 1864 Whistler began his Japonisme inspired works, including 'Symphony in White, No.2: The Little White Girl' which was exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year. In late 1865 he went to the seaside town of Trouville, where the French painter Gustave Courbet was also working. He continued painting seascapes at Valparaiso, Chile, in March 1866, returning to England later that year. In the spring of 1867 'Symphony in White, No.3', the first of his works to be exhibited with a musical title, was shown at the Royal Academy. Over the next three decades he produced a number of portraits, including 'Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother'.
In the early 1870s he began his series of ethereal landscapes entitled Nocturnes. 'Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket' caused a controversy when exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877: the critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of insolence for charging "two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler responded by charging Ruskin with libel. The ensuing trial of November 1878 involved many of the major figures of the Victorian art world: William Powell Frith and Edward Burne-Jones testified on Ruskin's behalf, while Albert Moore and William Michael Rossetti suppored Whistler. Whistler won the trial and was awarded one farthing in damages.
In September 1879, Whistler travelled to Venice, commissioned by the Fine Art Society to produce a set of etchings. He returned to London in November 1880, where he exhibited his Venetian prints and pastels in a series of exhibitions at the Fine Art Society. He met his pupil and assistant Walter Sickert in 1882. In 1884 he was made a member of the Society of British Artists, elected president in June 1886 and resigned in June 1888. In the 1880s and 1890s, he exhibited widely in Europe, including the Société des XX, Brussels, and the International Kunst-Ausstellung, Munich.
He married Beatrice Godwin in August 1888, abandoning his mistress Maude Franklin, with whom he had a child in 1879. He was awarded the Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur in September 1889. In 1890, he met Charles Freer, who formed an important collection of Whistler's work. In 1891 the Corporation of Glasgow acquired the portrait of Carlyle, which became the first of Whistler's paintings to be purchased by a public collection. In 1898 he was elected president of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers. Whistler received numerous awards at international exhibitions in the last decade of his life.
'James Abbott McNeill Whistler' by Walter Greaves, 1871