Whistler was an American, but he spent almost all his career in Europe, mainly in London. There he was one of the most famous, controversial and influential painters of his time.
Whistler was a colourful character, renowned for his wit and his stylish dress. He had many eminent friends, including Oscar Wilde and the painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Singer Sargent.
Whistler’s paintings are usually subtle and sensitive, but his views on art were outspoken and progressive. He thought that painting should deal mainly with abstract qualities such as colour and shape, rather than with subject matter.
Some critics thought that his paintings looked sloppy and unfinished, and in 1877 Whistler sued one of them, John Ruskin, for saying that his work amounted to “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Whistler won the case, but the legal costs bankrupted him. However, he later recovered and regained honours and financial success.
Whistler’s paintings are mainly portraits or landscapes. His most famous work is a portrait of his mother (1871). Its formal title is Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1, but it is often called Whistler’s Mother.