Though born in Lowell, Massachusetts, James McNeil Whistler spent some of his childhood in St. Petersburg, Russia. As his father worked as an advisor for the construction of the Moscow railroad, Whistler began his artistic career studying drawing at the Imperial Academy of Sciences. When he returned to the U.S., he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he studied drawing, but failed out of the school for poor chemistry grades in 1854. He briefly trained in etching as he worked for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, but left for Paris in 1855 to pursue an artistic career.
In France, Whistler studied academic painting and drawing, yet his style was deeply his own, influenced by the world around him. He became friends with many artists, writers, and art critics during his years in Paris. Whistler moved between Paris and England throughout early 1860s, settling in London in 1863. He was deeply influenced by Japanese art. While initially drawn to clothing and decorative objects, he began to integrate aspects of Japanese composition in his work. He began signing his works with a monogram in the shape of a butterfly which he would incorporate into the composition. During the 1860s, Whistler began to name his works with musical titles. Whistler was an important figure in the Aesthetic movement, following a philosophy of “ art for art’s sake” and an important agent of modern artistic thought between France and England.
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” - Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island