In honor of Father’s Day, we’re highlighting an excellent story by Jeff MacGregor, from Smithsonian Magazine’s June 2014 issue, “Getting to Know Whistler’s Father,” about the father of James McNeill Whistler, best known for painting his mother in an iconic piece of American art.
Born in 1800, George Washington Whistler was a West Point graduate. A soldier, draftsman, engineer and builder with a knack for constructing railroads, he is credited with bringing the steam whistle to American locomotives. So wide was his renown in 1842— about the time of this little painting—that Czar Nicholas I hired him to build the Moscow-St. Petersburg railway. George Washington Whistler died there doing so, much too young, in 1849.
But he had already launched his son in the arts, and where the father sought precision in the clean angles of a surveyor’s elevation and found permanence and beauty in iron and in the brightwork of steel and brass, his son set out after something more ephemeral and imprecise. Something weightless and fleeting and deep. Something like life.
James McNeill Whistler is to this day our proto-Bohemian genius beatnik, a serial lover of women and wit and art for art’s sake. His influence is still felt everywhere in American painting. And his endless blessing and eternal curse is to be held in the contempt of the familiar, to be forgotten and forever rediscovered by critics and by American audiences. With every new movement in art, Whistler earns his way back into the canon.
Father and son both imagined a better world, then fashioned it. And hidden in the story of every son is the story of every father. What father ever lived not wanting to be surpassed by his children?
If you’d like to read more, check out the rest of the article here. We hope you had a great Father’s Day, all you dads out there, and continue to invest in your children’s futures through art!
James McNeill Whistler is featured in two Art Docent Program lessons, “Pictures” for Kindergarten and “Musicians” for fifth grade.