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James McNeill Whistler

Charles Freer met Whistler in 1890 when, on his first trip to London, he paid a call at the artist's Chelsea studio and initiated a long and fruitful friendship. With Whistler's encouragement and cooperation, Freer built the most important collection of his works in the world, including the Peacock Room, which is now a part of the Freer Gallery of Art.

Whistler, an American by birth, left the United States at the age of twenty-one and never returned to his native country. He began his expatriate life as a student in Paris, where he befriended Gustave Courbet and other artists of the French avant-garde. Family connections and Victorian prosperity lured him to London, and he eventually settled there, living always in sight of the Thames River.

During the 1860s, as Whistler attempted to discard the realist style he had adopted in Paris, he found inspiration in the composition and subject matter of Japanese prints and the delicate designs on Chinese porcelains. To Whistler, objects imported from Asia embodied a beauty worlds away from the unpleasant aspects of industrial London.

By the 1870s, he was transforming scenes of contemporary life, especially along the riverbank, into tranquil views of the city, veiled in mood and atmosphere. He gave his works musical titles, hoping to defeat the Victorian tendency to read pictures like books, and he incorporated elements of Japanese style into his compositions. His monogram, which took the form of a butterfly, served as a signature on many of his paintings and some of the picture frames that he designed. In Whistler's own time, these devices were often dismissed as eccentricities, but today his works are considered among the most innovative and original of the nineteenth century.


Adopt-a-Pot in The Peacock Room Comes To America


Browse works by Whistler in our collections section.

Current exhibitions

Freer and Whistler: Points of Contact
The Peacock Room


The Peacock Room Comes to America
By Lee Glazer
On sale in the museum shop

James McNeill Whistler in Context
Edited by Lee Glazer, Margaret F. MacDonald, Linda Merrill, and Nigel Thorp

Mr. Whistler's Gallery: Pictures at an 1884 Exhibition
By Kenneth John Myers

The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography
By Linda Merrill

With Kindest Regards: The Correspondence of Charles Lang Freer and James McNeill Whistler
Edited by Linda Merrill

Other Whistler Resources

James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings A Catalogue Raisonné, University of Glasgow

The Story of the Beautiful: Freer, Whistler, and Their Points of Contact

James McNeill Whistler Collection, Colby Museum of Art

The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler

Whistler Online Catalogue, Hunterian Art Gallery

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