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Sweet Silent Thought: Whistler's Interiors

At the age of twenty-one Whistler made a self-conscious and deliberate decision to become a professional artist. When he left the United States for France in 1855, he associated himself with Gustav Courbet, Charles Baudelaire, and other avant-garde painters and poets in Paris. He also maintained a close relationship with his half-sister Deborah Haden and her family in London. In 1858, at the urging of Deborah’s husband, the surgeon and amateur etcher Francis Seymour Haden, Whistler began a series of etchings in which figures read, play music, or daydream in a domestic interior.

In the nearly half-century that followed, Whistler’s artistic style underwent a significant change. He detached himself from the realism of Courbet, embraced the “art for art’s sake” ideals of British aestheticism, and developed an increasingly abstract approach to representation. He also continued to explore and refine favorite motifs. Images of reading and making music allowed Whistler to depict figures whose concentrated attention seems to block out the surrounding world.

Whistler was also fascinated by the sense of reverie conveyed by pensive women in languid poses. A drawing of young Nelly Ionides,who later married Whistler’s brother William, and the etching Weary of the artist’s mistress Jo Hiffernan exemplify this interest. The late lithograph La Belle Dame Endormie (The Beautiful Sleeping Lady) depicts Whistler’s wife Beatrice, whom he married in 1888. Although Beatrice was already suffering from cancer—she died in 1896—the soft, velvety lines of this lithograph repress the reality of illness under the cover of sleep.

For most of his career, Whistler worked in an art studio within his home, and his own collections and furnishings often appear as props. In later prints, such as Nude Model, Reclining, the woman seems unaware of being observed, while the artist’s presence is implied by a sketchy, evocative touch. Some of Whistler’s earliest studio images, however, are constructed as self-portraits that give the viewer a “behind-the-scenes” glimpse of the generally private spaces in which concentrated attention, associated with both reverie and artistic creativity, is exercised.

All of these works are by the American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and are the Gift of Charles Lang Freer.

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