Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal
11th July 2003 - Happy Birthday Jimmie!
The artist James McNeill Whistler was born on this day in 1834. However, his exact name and place of birth are worthy of some further comment.
Regarding his name, when in July 1902 Whistler was quite unwell and was involved in the task of finalising his will, he wrote to his lawyer William Webb (by the hand of Charles Lang Freer) the following:
"At the time I signed the will drawn by you, I wrote my signature J. or James McNeill Whistler, which by custom and repute, is universally recognized as my own:- Whereas, in reality, I had been named James Abbott Whistler simply. This later on I resented feeling that of course, I, as my mother's elder son had the real right to bear her Highland name of which we are all very proud. Without more ado, I at once, took possession of it - dropping forever the "Abbott" of comparative insignificance... Now, it has occured [sic] to me that connections or others... might on some such point attempt to dispute this will. If there be the faintest possibility of legal success in such a course, pray let us rectify our error instantly -"
(GUL MS Whistler F461)
Webb replied that there was nothing for the artist to worry about, and that the unofficial change to his name, omitting the 'Abbott', would cause no such legal problems.
As to the artist's place of birth, Whistler appears to have been ashamed at the thought of having been born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and so attempted to create for himself a new background. For example, at the beginning of the famous Ruskin trial in 1878 Whistler claimed to have been born in St. Petersburg (Linda Merrill, A Pot of Paint, Washington, 1992, p. 19).
Unfortunately though for Whistler, a publication entitled The Book of Lowell appeared in which Whistler was listed as a son of that city; Whistler wrote to the publishers the following reply (this is a draft version):
"It is all too complacent & naif in the Scribes of of [sic] Lowell to build up (errect) [sic] a monument of belief, for the municipality of that most excellent city, in the production of distinguished Poets - Painters - Sculptors. Artists are not born in noble Lowell! Lowell of the loom - Lowell the sturdy[.] And yet this is not the first time I have heard it whispered [and] gossiped that from below some riotous chimney, also, in Massachusetts I first saw light!!... No, - I was not born in Lowell - and Massachusetts knows me not -"
(GUL MS Whistler X8)
Whistler was determined to build for himself a Southern heritage rather than that of a northern industrial town, hence his repeated return to the theme:
"I have read that I was born in Pomfret, cultured Connecticut, in Boston, and even Lowell! - ... But my people were Southerners... and if there were any truth in this strange Northern cradle of their sons they would have lived it down in silence... No - the time has gone by when a man shall be born, without being consulted - ... When, one of these days I return to my native land, I shall expect to be born in every town in the United States, - and meanwhile I have chosen Baltimore."
(GUL MS Whistler W818)
However, we can definitely confirm that Whistler was born in Lowell!