Saturday, February 11, 2012

Co|So History :: James McNeill Whistler Exhibition, 1904

Let’s take a step back in time.  It’s the evening February 23, 1904 and Copley Hall opens its doors to more than 1,600 people, who have traveled to Boston to see the works of James McNeill Whistler.  The attendees of this private opening received invitations and catalogues produced to resemble those previously designed by Whistler. Included in the Copley Society Archives is an incomplete invitation to this Tuesday evening, February 23rd 1904 opening.  According to the society’s annual report of 1904, “The invitations to this opening were, in the main, reproductions of those used by Mr. Whistler for an exhibition of his work held in London.” The butterfly insignia, located on the lower left corner of the invitation, had been a trademark signature of Whistler’s since the 1860’s.  With a stinger added as a tail, the butterfly represented the sensual and aggressive natures of both Whistler’s personality and work.

Invitation to 1904 Whistler Exhibition

James McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834 and began his art career through drawing assignments for the United States military.  In 1855 he moved to Paris, set on the goal of becoming an artist.  Here, Whistler was influenced by a variety of international styles including French Realism, Japanese print and decoration, as well as seventeenth century Dutch and Spanish schools.  Soon after settling in Paris, Whistler moved to London and made a name for himself when his painting At the Piano was received by the Royal Academy for an exhibition in 1860. 

James Abbott McNeill Whistler. At the Piano. 1858-59. Oil on canvas. Taft Museum, Cincinnati, OH, USA

Whistler’s paintings give the viewer a profound sense of his ability to compose harmonious arrangements of color into thoughtful series of portraits and landscapes.  While his work can be described as subtle and somewhat classical, his approach to art was more radical for his time.  A contemporary of the Impressionists, Whistler belonged to the ‘l’art pour l’art’ school of thought:
“Art should be independent of all clap-trap – should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like.” 
- James McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875, oil on panel, Detroit Institute of the Arts, Detroit

Upon hearing the news of Whistler’s death in June of 1903, and with the help of Whistler’s friends and patrons, the Copley Society began preparation for the memorial exhibition.  The artist’s personal aesthetic stretched from the invitations and catalogues to the decoration of Copley Hall, which featured Whistler’s oriental influence in the Japanese cloths, carvings, and ornaments that adorned the walls. The memorial collection featured work from every period of his artistic career from school-boy drawings until the time of his death.  The main hall contained eighty-four of Whistler’s oil paintings, while separate rooms displayed black and white works, etchings, dry-points, lithographs, watercolors, and pastels.

Image of Whistler Memorial Exhibition from the Archives of American Art

Whistler’s international status left various countries - including France, Germany and England – scrambling to procure their own collections of Whistler’s work, but it was his home state of Massachusetts and the Copley Society that secured the privilege.  The Whistler Exhibition attracted a total attendance of 41,111 by the time of its closing on March 28, 1904.  Keeping with its tradition of engaging and educating the public, the Copley Society arranged special days during the exhibition for art students, artists, and members of the press to visit free of charge. 
The Copley Society was greatly honored to hold such a momentous, and successful, exhibition for one of the most prominent American painters.

"WebMuseum: Whistler, James Abbott McNeill." Ibiblio - The Public's Library and Digital Archive. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <>.

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