Best known for his painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, the famous portrait of his mother, and his well-publicized legal battle with the English art critic John Ruskin, the American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) often garners as much attention for his flamboyant personality as for his artistic production. Yet a look at the artist's portraits and early landscapes demonstrates a different side of his vision.
In the first installation, Whistler's etchings and lithographs from the late 1850s, all drawn from the collection of The Fralin, expose his debt to Rembrandt, contemporary French etchers like Charles Meryon, and the work and collection of Whistler's brother-in-law, Francis Seymour Haden. Evident in these works are Whistler's emerging mastery of the medium and his evolving interest in the aesthetics of light, tone, and shade. The works on view reveal an artist during a period of almost frenzied experimentation and prolific work, the results of which would be a singular, controversial artistic vision.
Whistler's portraiture is the subject of the second installation, which considers the various ways he represented people over the course of his career. As in his landscapes, Whistler was initially influenced by Rembrandt's etched portraits, especially the dramatic light and shade the Dutch master used to represent the sitter's personality. As he gained experience with the medium in the late 1850s, his etchings of family members and fellow artists became more personal and increasingly combined truthful representation with an emphasis on the deep, dark shadows that etching could so powerfully display. His work of the 1870s shifted towards an intense focus on the play of light and atmosphere, as is also evident in his landscapes. By the 1890s, Whistler had resolved his approach to the body, treating portraits much as he did other subject matter.