Whistler was one of the most controversial American artists of his time. He was also a witty and caustic writer. Probably best known for the painting Portrait of My Mother which now hangs in the Louvre in Paris.
Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, July 10, 1834. His grandfather, John Whistler was a Scottish major under General Burgoyne and arrived in America after the Revolutionary War. Later, he joined the American army and came to this area to built Old Fort Dearborn. His mother, Anna McNeill, was also descended from early Scottish settlers. Her family had been Stuart supporters and came to America in 1746 after the Battle of Culloden.
His father, George Washington Whistler, was a graduate of West Point who once led a surveying team that helped establish the boundaries between the United States and Canada. Whistler spent his boyhood in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father was working as a railroad engineer. When James was 15, his father died and the family returned to America and he enrolled in West Point Military Academy. He resigned in his third year and in 1855 he left for Europe and never returned.
As an artist, Whistler was not widely appreciated in his early years. His originality brought strong criticism. His portraits had a ghostly style and some of his painting were abstract by 19th century standards. Whistler died in Chelsea, England, on July 17, 1903.
He was once questioned about the legality of his will that had been signed J. McNeill Whistler instead of his legal name James Abbott Whistler. He replied "as my mother's eldest son I have the real right to bear her Highland name of which we are all very proud."
The Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow holds the pre-eminent research collections for Whistler. They include nearly 1,000 of his works of art and original letters and other documents. The university holds the copyright on his extensive correspondence of some 11,000 letters.
James McNeill Whistler is a member of the Scottish American Hall of Fame in North Riverside, Illinois.