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About the Film

An art star, dandy, instigator and a radical artistic visionary, James McNeill Whistler (1834—1903) introduced ideas and art forms that were avant-garde for their time. A new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Karen Thomas, James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty, for the first time examines the life of the man and the course of his career. The one-hour documentary premiered Friday, September 12, 2014 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS stations nationwide, as part of PBS Arts. (check local listings.) Two Academy Award winning actors lead this journey: Kevin Kline provides the voice of Whistler, and Anjelica Huston is the film’s narrator.

Known as a caustic wit and man-about-town, the film takes a close look at how the 19th-Century artist pioneered a new way of thinking about art, that beauty, in and of itself, is a work of art’s most essential value. This groundbreaking genius’ struggle to find his own voice resulted in a breakaway style that moved painting towards abstraction and revolutionized the art world in Whistler’s time – paving the way for what became known as modern art decades later in the 20th-Century. By the time of his death, Whistler had become one of the most recognized artists in Europe. He is now placed in the first rank of modern painters, his work compared to that of Velázquez and Rembrandt.

Featuring nearly 200 etchings, paintings and historical photographs, James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty provides a thorough look at the beauty of Whistler’s art and the adventuresome nature that earned him his often-controversial status and made him the original art star. The documentary employs elaborate re-creations, unique 3-D animations and layered builds of the artist’s great works to explore the man and the art.

A group of engaging Whistler experts – including Lee Glazer, Associate Curator of American Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian; Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art, Yale University; Sarah Burns, cultural historian; Indiana University; Stephen Calloway, historian of decadence and culture, and former Curator, Victoria & Albert Museum; Gordon Cooke, The Fine Art Society, London; David Park Curry, Senior Curator, Baltimore Museum of Art; Linda Merrill, Lecturer, Emory University; Margaret MacDonald, art historian, University of Glasgow; Joyce Hill Stoner, art conservator, Winterthur and Delaware University; and Whistler biographer Daniel E. Sutherland – guide viewers through the moments that defined Whistler as a visionary American artist and champion of beauty.

James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty is produced by Film Odyssey, Inc., Washington, DC in association with the Freer Gallery of Art, 1-A Productions, Glasgow, and WETA, Washington DC.

Major funding for James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty was made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding was made possible by the Lunder Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and by the DC Council on the Arts and Humanities, Humanities Council of Washington DC, Maryland Humanities Council, and public television viewers.

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