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Posted on July 6th, 2012, by

The historical connection between art and music can be richly illustrated by the creative work of John McNeil Whistler, a prominent English artist of American origin. In order to get a better understanding of his contribution into the world of art, it is necessary to overview the biography of the artist. Despite the fact that he received education in Europe and spent much time far from his motherland, his artistic style remained truly American. Due to the fact that American culture has not been isolated from the world culture, the American art in its development absorbed and assimilated many influences. And John Whistler was first to create a transitionary artistic style, which combines characteristic features of different cultures. However, European critics were rather severe upon him for his extraordinary and radical artistic views (American Attitude: Whistler and His Followers, 2004). Nonetheless, his progressive creative work and powerful imagination were greatly appreciated in his native country. The fruits of his labors were highly estimated by American judges of art. As a result, his fame soon spread far and wide, and his paintings became the ideal model for further generations of artists to follow.

It should be mentioned that unlike typical paintings of those times, Whistler’s works were not sentimental. Although they were ingeniously composed, one is unlikely to experience strong emotions, while observing his paintings (American Attitude: Whistler and His Followers, 2004). Thus, his most outstanding work “Whistler’s mother” is deprived of those sentimental feelings, which inevitably fill our hearts when we think of the dearest to us people.

Whistler considered that art is like music, which we just hear, and it has nothing to do with human feelings. During his entire artistic career, Whistler aimed not to let strong feelings and morality penetrate his paintings. He never strived for a vivid depiction of the scene and his brushstrokes were often indistinct. His aim was to create an ideal composition and select appropriate colors.

Despite the fact that he had often been misunderstood and disapproved by people for his innovative thinking, it should now be clear that he had a considerable impact on contemporary artists, and his artistic techniques were borrowed by many prominent artists of modern times. Among them are John Singer Sargent, Henry Ossawa Tanner and others. (American Attitude: Whistler and His Followers, 2004)

Whistler became a founder of a totally new philosophy in English art. While typical Victorian artists strived for a vivid depiction of nature or morality, Whistler created first examples of a truly aesthetic art, which focused on the combination of colors, rather than the subject itself. Whistler tended to give musical titles to his paintings. It also led to disapproval from the side of people devoted to traditional art. Ruskin, for example, strongly believed that any piece of art should bear a religious, literary, moral or mythological element (Power, 2008). Otherwise, it cannot be called art. Like many typical Victorian artists, Ruskin focused on creating a psychological image of the paintings, showing their inner side and idealizing the characters to some extent. John Whistler, however, became a forerunner of a new aesthetic art, and aimed to create outer beauty, together with colors, composition and play of light and dark, rather than feelings and emotions of the characters (Landry). Such a manner of painting became a characteristic feature of modern impressionism. John Whistler was one of those great artists, who raised the art of the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the level of European art. His creative work personified the best and most prominent traits in the American national character. He developed his own style based on impressionism and was first to introduce a musical element into the art. On the other hand, he turned away from romantic sentimentalism, peculiar to the 19th century artists.

Whistler’s way to world-wide fame was steep and toilsome, as many artists, especially John Ruskin, disapproved any novelties in art and were greatly dedicated to traditional views and artistic trends. The drastic differences between Ruskin’s and Whistler’s outlooks soon led to a famous trial. When Whistler’s works were exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery, Ruskin was so displeased with it, that he publicly called Whistler a coxcomb and badly reputed his paintings.

He blamed him for ”˜flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public’ (Pioch, 1996). The trial was eventually won by Whistler, but it did not improve his already shattered reputation, and he received a very small sum of money, which was not enough to refund expenses spent on the trial. Nonetheless, Whistler was not disappointed. On the contrary, he thought that in such a way he managed to protect his honor. Moreover, this historic trial can also be considered a battle between old and new trends in art, traditional and innovative outlooks.  This battle resulted in the victory of art-for-art’s-sake philosophy and cleared the way for today’s artists to use Whistler’s techniques in their creative work.

”˜As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight’ (James McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903), 2000). John Whistler considered subject to be quite insignificant and unnecessary in art. The things that really mattered for him were harmony and beauty. Morality had no meaning to Whistler. His main concern was depiction of beauty by means of color, brushstrokes and other artistic techniques. Harmony as the leading feature of his paintings was very unusual and extraordinary at that time. He strongly believed that art should be admired for its own sake, but not for its meaning. His style of painting was influenced by Japanese and European motives, and his famous ”˜Nocturne: Blue and Gold’ is a fusion of Eastern and Western understanding of art (Power, 2008). Even though the East and the West will always be as different as day and night, in his paintings Whistler tried to depict the East through the West and vice versa. The fact that Whistler had left his homeland for Europe in his early years and had always been an inveterate traveler also influenced his further artistic taste. His paintings represent a mixture of French musical styles and Japanese artistic ones. This duality is clearly visible in his paintings.

In conclusion, the works of John Whistler should be qualified as valuable examples of a transitionary trend in American art, based on aesthetic principles and disapproval of morality and idealization of depicted characters. John Whistler made a significant contribution into the development of art and his artistic techniques were later used by many contemporary artists. What is more, owing Whistler’s progressive and innovative attitude to art, the connection between art and music became more distinct and comprehensible.

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