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Book of the Month

July 2003

James McNeill Whistler

Books & Documents from the 1840s

   Sp Coll Whistler 160-165 (and others)

As Whistler mania seizes Glasgow, we are joining the 2003 centenary celebrations by highlighting a small selection of material from the vast Whistler Archive held in the Special Collections Department. The documents chosen here focus on Whistler's childhood between the years 1843 and 1849, during which time he lived in St Petersburg and England. July is a doubly appropriate time in which to feature Whistler, being the month in which he was both born (11 July 1834) and died (17 July 1903).

Whistler aged about 10
albumen silver print by an unknown photographer (Whistler PH1/93)

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, James Whistler journeyed to Russia in August 1843 at the age of nine, along with his mother, Anna, his half sister Deborah, and his younger brothers William and Charles; they were escorted by his older half-brother, George. They were joining their father (George Washington Whistler) in St Petersburg where he had been employed to oversee the construction of the Russian national railway. The family travelled by paddle-steamer from America to Liverpool and spent some time with relatives in England before continuing their journey to Russia. The long voyage was marred by tragedy: James' two year old brother, Charlie, took ill and died on board the steamer to Kronstadt.

Whistler's school books from St Petersburg

St Petersburg was a lively, cosmopolitan city, and the Whistlers lived there in some style. They settled first in the city's most exclusive street, the Galernia, but later moved to a more modest flat on the English quay overlooking the River Neva. Both residences were near to the Winter Palace and the Hermitage. Although they were well connected, Anna's strict religious outlook resulted in her eschewing the social round of parties and balls as far as she could; the family's social life consisted for the most part in exchanging visits with other expatriate Americans.

title-page (Whistler 160)

flyleaf (Whistler 165)

title-page (Whistler 162)

Amongst the holdings of the Special Collections archive are some two hundred books from Whistler's personal library. Included are several volumes from his schooldays in Russia. Reflecting his multi-lingual education, several are grammars of French and Russian; there are also some works in Latin, a history of Russia in English, and a work of Russian fables. Although on the whole somewhat dry in their subject matter, the books are interesting witnesses of James' schooling. Both James and his brother, Willie, were first taught privately at home by a succession of tutors. It seemed, however, that they needed stricter instruction, and for a period in 1846 they became pupils at Monsieur Jourdan's French boarding school. James declared this school to be 'first rate' although he was soon in trouble thanks to an aversion to discipline; Willie suffered badly from home sickness. Both boys were withdrawn in January 1847, ostensibly because Anna was worried about their moral education. Their half sister, Deborah, later became their tutor.
Several of the boys' surviving books are signed, sometimes by both James and Willie. As well as the usual ink blotches and scribblings that might be expected in any school book, a few blank flyleaves have been utilized by James to practise his fledgling artistic talent.

detail from page 30 (Whistler 164)

front pastedown (Whistler 161)

James had shown an interest in and an aptitude for art from an early age. He is described as drawing at every opportunity as a boy, and other examples of his work from this period survive in a sketchbook now in the Hunterian Art Gallery.

detail of front pastedown (Whistler 161)

He began to take lessons from an advanced art student, Alexander Karetzky, shortly after his arrival in St Petersburg. In 1844, meanwhile, he was encouraged in a visit from Sir William Allan, a Scottish painter invited to Russia by the Tsar to paint a canvas of Peter the Great. James insisted on showing him his work and Allan duly responded by declaring that they displayed 'uncommon genius'.

detail from pastedown (Whistler 165)

In 1845, James was enrolled in a class at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, two hundred yards from the Whistlers' residence. Meeting three times a week, and receiving instruction in Russian and French, this class learned by drawing copies of classical statues. James continued with this instruction at weekends even while at boarding school. In the final exam of 2 March 1846, he came 28th out of 100 and received the top grade.

Hogarth was an early artistic influence. The intensely cold St Petersburg winters resulted in ill health for several members of the Whistler family, and James was no exception. He suffered from recurring bouts of rheumatic fever and in 1847 was bed ridden for six weeks; while Anna sang hymns to solace the patient, Deborah borrowed a book of Hogarth's engravings for him to peruse. According to the Pennells, this was the beginning of James' 'love of Hogarth, which became an article of faith with him'.

beginning of letter to Whistler from his mother on his tenth birthday, 11 July 1844 (MS Whistler W351)

Not many documents written by James himself survive from his days in St Petersburg. However, amongst the items currently on display at the exhibition in the Hunterian Art Gallery is a poem written by him for his mother on the occasion of his tenth birthday (MS Whistler W350).  Shown here is Anna's effusive response to this. Beginning 'my own darling James', she relates how touched she ('who ten years ago folded him with joy in a maternal embrace') was to receive the poem as a surprise at breakfast: 'my tears could scarcely be restrained and had I followed the impulse of my feelings I should have left my seat to embrace you'. There is a hint in the lines following, however, that young James' behaviour was not always as exemplary as his pious mother wished, for she goes on to say, 'let me beseech you never to forget your dependence upon Him. If from this tenth anniversary you put off childish ways & become obedient to your parents... Thro his holy influence I pray your life may be a source of comfort to us all'. 

seal of Anna Whistler
(on envelope accompanying MS Whistler W351)

part of letter from Anna to George Washington Whistler, 10 June, 1847 (MS Whistler W353)

In June 1847, Anna took her children to visit relatives in England, primarily to escape an influenza epidemic; George was left behind to carry on his work. Anna wrote the letter to George shown here during their apparently rather rough steamer voyage. From this extract it is clear that Anna derived more comfort from the quiet and docile Willie rather than headstrong James. While Willie is 'a lovely combination of gentleness & determination to do what is right', solicitously keeping an eye on his seasick mother, 'dear Jemie' characteristically fends off queasiness by drawing. He did later spend some time with Anna at his books, however, when 'he listens to my advice as tho[ugh] he would be governed by it' .

After arriving in England, James also wrote to George to tell him about his experiences on the voyage. His letter concentrates on a visit to an art gallery during their stop at Lbeck. He describes his favourite painting as being 'a very fine head painted by a Spanish master', rather optimistically continuing that 'if you wished to buy it, he could easily send it to you'. He goes on dutifully to report that he heard a 'very good sermon' at York Minster.

Following a week in Scarborough, the Whistlers moved on to Preston. The trip obviously gave James a favourable impression of England, for later in the letter to his father he remarks that 'I like England and the English people a great deal better than I thought I would'. His holiday enjoyment was perhaps enhanced by the companionship (and competitiveness) of a kindred spirit, since he relates that his friend George Chapman was also fond of drawing and that 'we both agreed to draw the same subject and to compare them afterwards'.

first page of letter from Whistler to his father, 21 June 1847 (MS Whistler W654)

part of letter to Whistler from his father, 18 January 1849 (MS Whistler W660)

Following another winter in St Petersburg, a cholera epidemic resulted in Anna, James and Willie once more escaping to England in the spring. After visiting the newly married Deborah in London, the family settled on the Isle of Wight for a long holiday; here James soon got to work with a new paintbox, a gift from Deborah's husband, Seymour Haden. Having been recently afflicted again with rheumatic fever, James remained in England after the holiday, first boarding at a school near Bristol and then staying with Deborah and Seymour in London where he revelled in frequent visits to museums and galleries. A fair amount of familial correspondence survives from this period, several letters to James from Willie, Anna, George and Deborah still existing, along with a few letters in return from James. An interesting exchange of opinion regarding James' future occurs in letters between him and his father in early 1849. George advises James to 'cultivate now as an artist if, you please, an acquaintance with, and a taste for works of art - useful works', suggesting that practical application will result in his studying well in engineering and architecture. James, meanwhile writes in a letter (that presumably crossed with his father's in the post) that 'I hope dear father you will not object to my choice, viz: a painter, for I wish to be one so very much and I don't see why I should not, many others have done so before'.

part of letter from Whistler to his father, 26 January 1849 (MS Whistler W661)

portrait of Whistler at age 14
oil painting by Sir William Boxall,1849
(image by permission of Hunterian Art  Gallery: GLAHA 43500)

This same letter also refers to a portrait of James being 'nearly finished'. This portrait had been commissioned by George, and James comments that  'I am quite sure you will be better pleased with it than any that has yet been taken'. He describes how he, Deborah and Seymour went to see the painting, and how Seymour 'was very much pleased .. it is very like'. It was painted by William Boxall, a prominent member of the Royal Academy and popular portraitist. James deems Boxall to be 'a beautiful Colourist' and 'one of the first artists'. Boxall was evidently charmed by James; he took him to Hampton Court to see Raphael's cartoons and gave him a book about Italian renaissance artists.

A few months after this letter was written, George Washington Whistler died in St Petersburg. Having suffered from ill health throughout his stay in Russia, he finally succumbed to cholera on 9 April. A sad letter from Willie to James in early May notes that 'the last words dear Father said to me were, Good bye, be a good boy' (MS Whistler  W978). Soon after, Willie and Anna joined James in London. During this time they attended the opening of the RA exhibition at which Boxall's portrait of James was displayed. On 29 July, the family embarked on their return voyage to America. James was then fifteen.


The following were useful in compiling this article:

Gordon Fleming The young Whistler 1834-66 London: 1978 Sp Coll Whistler 317.5;  E.R.  and J. Pennell The life of James McNeill Whistler Philadelphia: 1919 Sp Coll Whistler 368; Whistlers and further family unpublished Glasgow University Library exhibition catalogue, 1980 Sp Coll Whistler EC1980.3



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Julie Gardham July 2003