Click to scroll to each Activity.
Activity 1. Introduce, View, and Discuss the Film, James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty
Before students view the video, James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty, tell them to notice Whistler’s public personality as well as his serious private side. Also, they should note how his art changed over his lifetime.
Lesson 1.1 Worksheet Reviewing Whistler Film
After viewing the film, students may write answers to the questions on the Lesson 1.1 Worksheet Reviewing Whistler Film.
Have students discuss their answers with the class. Encourage them to add information to their worksheets that they learn in these discussions.
Compile a class list of student responses to the worksheet questions. You might wish to use the Lesson 1.2 Worksheet Reviewing Whistler Film Answers.
Lesson 1.2 Worksheet Reviewing Whistler Film Answers
Students’ answers should be similar to the following examples:
1. Write three words or phrases to describe Whistler’s public persona or personality.
at times fun to be with,
(or similar terms and phrases)
2. Write three words or phrases describing Whistler’s appearance.
Black curly hair with a white lock that he sometimes tied with a ribbon,
wore a monocle,
carried a wand,
careful or natty dresser, a dandy
color coordinated how he dressed with his art exhibition – once even wearing yellow socks
(or similar terms and phrases)
3. Write three words that describe some of his work habits and art-making.
Not serious – early in his career
Serious, hard working – later in his career
Painted his Nocturnes from memory
(or similar terms and phrases)
4. At the beginning of his art career, what was Whistler trying to achieve or show in his art?
At the beginning of his career Whistler tried to show realistic looking scenes of everyday life.
5. Towards the end of Whistler’s art career, what was he trying to achieve or show in his art?
His goal was to create beautiful art, “art for art’s sake” that did not tell a story or have a moral.
Activity 2. Read, Think, Write (Whistler’s Life)
1. Whistler’s Life and Times
Have students view Comparative Timeline.
Call attention to some of the significant events in Whistler’s life.
Discuss how events in Europe, United States, and Japan influenced Whistler.
Russian Czar Nicholas I invited Whistler’s father to design the St. Petersburg to Moscow railroad in 1842. Therefore, as a young boy Whistler studied art and learned to speak French in the Russian court.
When Whistler’s mother fled the Civil War in the United States, she came to live with him in London. He painted her portrait during this time.
London as the center of world trade and commerce in the 19th- Century provided a market for Whistler’s art. Its growing middle class was prosperous enough to purchase Whistler’s paintings and prints.
When Japan began trading with western nations in the 1850s, Whistler and other American and European artists were influenced by Asian art, particularly Japanese prints.
Have students read “The Artist – James McNeill Whistler”, a 1-page reproducible biography of Whistler. Using this handout and the online timelines about his life and world events, have students write a short essay explaining how events in Europe, the United States, and Japan influenced Whistler’s life and art. See the reproducible Assignment Sheet for Whistler Life and Time Essay.
2. Whistler and the Marketplace
Have students read “The Artist and Marketplace,” a 1-page reproducible essay about Whistler’s self-promotion.
Ask: What was Whistler’s point in the opening quote of the “The Artist and Marketplace” essay?
Whistler was ridiculing the critic who had written a bad review of his art. He was trying to show that the critic did not know what he was talking about and did not understand art.
Ask: How did Whistler call attention to himself and his art.
He dressed and acted eccentrically, wrote letters to newspapers in response to any criticism of his art, and invited critics and patrons to see his art.
Ask: Why did Whistler seek public attention to himself.
He wanted the public to notice him and buy his art.
Encourage students to think of public personalities who act and dress to call attention to themselves. Students may suggest movie stars and musicians.
3. Caricatures of Whistler
Leslie Matthew Ward (Spy), "JAM Whistler - A Symphony", Vanity Fair, January 12 1878
Show students Whistler caricature in Vanity Fair, 1878, Courtesy of the University of Virginia.
Ask students to describe Whistler in this caricature.
They should notice his dark curly hair with one white lock, his monocle, cigarette, wand, hat, long coat, bows on shoes, mustache, bushy eyebrows, cocked head, long fingers on waist, and stare at the viewer. He is dressed to go out.
Ask: What does this pose suggest about Whistler’s personality. Students should note that he seems sure of himself.
His cocked head, hand on waist, and glare seem to challenge the viewer.
Explain that this is Whistler’s public appearance and persona.
Whistler Caricature in Entr'acte Almanack, 1879
Show students a Whistler Caricature in Entr'acte Almanack, 1879 [Link to 3_LOC Whistler Almanack 1879.tif].
Ask: What does this caricature tell us about Whistler. Encourage students to look for clues in the drawing.
It shows Whistler painting intently. He has written, “Damages one farthing” on the canvas referring to his libel suit against John Ruskin (that is covered in Lesson 4, Aesthetics). Perhaps the mask hanging out of his jacket pocket suggests his public mask or face.
Activity 3. Look and Think (Whistler’s The Balcony)
"Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony," c.1864–70, Oil on panel
61.4 x 48.8 cm, Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Lesson 1.7 Study Guide Look and Think about Whistler’s The Balcony Answer Sheet
Ask students to identify the objects in question 1 on a large image of The Balcony. Add information to the class discussion as students point out the objects.
A Balcony railing
Model leans against it as it cuts across middle of picture plane
This was the view from Whistler’s window.
B Thames River
The Thames River bisects London. It is and was a major transportation artery and location for industry. During the 19th- Century the Thames was heavily polluted as residents dumped their sewage into the river.
C Cherry blossoms
Throughout Japanese history, cherry blossoms have been cherished as a symbol of life, death, and rebirth.
D Industrial city
landscape above river in background
Whistler found beauty in this cityscape of Battersea, one of London’s most industrial and dirty areas. Note how blurred this part of the painting is. Although structures are recognizable, over time Whistler’s landscapes were increasingly abstract.
E Horizon line
just above the cityscape in the background.
As in Japanese compositions, the horizon line is higher than that in most western art.
F Foggy London sky and atmosphere
above and around the city and smokestacks
Point out the smoke on the left. This fog and polluted air from London’s coal furnaces blurs the landscape.
H Japanese fan
held by reclining woman
G Kimono (long, wide-sleeved Japanese robe worn with an obi tied around the waist.)
All these women are in loose robes, but the one standing wears a kimono with an obi.
I Shamisen (a Japanese three-stringed music instrument)
Woman in white print and blue robe holds the shamisen.
J Sake set (for serving a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from rice)
near the reclining woman’s knees
lower left corner and near the middle edge on the left.
Butterflies were Whistler’s mark. He included them as his signature on art and correspondence.
L Artist’s chop mark, similar to a Japanese seal
lower left corner
Chinese and Japanese artists mark their art with their personal signature stamp. Even today people in China stamp their bank checks with individual chop marks.
2. From his title, Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, we know Whistler was experimenting with color. Locate different flesh tones in this painting. Where has Whistler repeated various shades of pink and flesh tones?
Faces, arms, hands, flowers, chop mark background.
Most of this painting is in cool blues with spots of red and pink repeated through out. Repetition of colors unifies the painting.
3. Which main lines tie the composition to the edge of the picture frame?
Vertical pole on left and the horizontal balcony line.
The figures are not centered but arranged along these main lines. The figures’ bodies extend past the edges of the painting, to suggest an informal composition, like a snapshot of a household scene. This type of informal composition was typical of Japanese prints.
4. Describe the brush-strokes on the kimonos and background landscape.
The brush-strokes vary but many are visible, long ribbon-like strokes inspired by the drapery of Greek sculptures and some seem sketchy.
5. What part of this painting is most abstract, with the fewest recognizable details?
The cityscape in the background hazy fog.
6. What happened in Japan that enabled Whistler and other European artists to see Japanese art?
Japan opened up to trade with western nations.
As Japanese prints and porcelain appeared in European cities, artists were fascinated by the Asian objects and art compositions.
Students may watch a “shamisen”, the Japanese three-stringed instrument in Whistler’s The Balcony, being played in a YouTube video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWJrMA3zJ5o.
Activity 4. Studio: Gesture Studies
Study for “The Three Girls,” c.1869-1872, Black ink on buff grey-lined wove paper, 18.3 x 21.7 cm, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, Birnie Philip Bequest 1958
Studies of a man’s head and a crouching woman, c. 1869-1872, drawing, Pencil on off-white laid paper, 17.7 x 5.4 cm, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow
Show students Whistler’s studies, Study for "The Three Girls" and Studies of a man’s head and a crouching woman.
Explain that these are quick sketches to capture the figures’ gestures or action. In the Crouching Woman the lines are sketchy, scribbles. No attempt is made to make them perfect, rather the artist seeks to quickly capture a movement. Notice how few lines Whistler used in the two left figures of the Three Girls study. Invite students to speculate on how long it took Whistler to sketch each of these. Whistler sketched studies like this as he experimented with poses and compositions for his large paintings.
Lesson 1.8 Studio Assignment: Sketch Gesture Studies
Have students take turns posing in positions similar to those of the Whistler studies and The Balcony. Limit each pose to 1 to 2 minutes. Encourage students to experiment with line as they draw each pose. Try making scribbles without lifting the pen. In others use short sketchy lines. Invite athletes and dancers to pose in sport or dance positions. Students may draw with pencils or markers on drawing paper. They should select one of their sketches to display in a class exhibit. They may save the other sketches in portfolios.
Lesson 1.8a Extension:
Students may add color to their figure sketches with markers or paint.
Activity 5. Assessment Activity: Designing a Whistler Exhibition
Have students develop a visual plan for displaying some of Whistler’s art. They should suggest the size and color of the exhibition space, the needs of the viewer, and the layout of the exhibition.
Lesson 1.9 Studio Assignment.
Lesson 1.9a Extending the Lesson.
Students may create box dioramas of their exhibition. There is one pictured in the film James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty.