by Christina Volpe
As one of the most well-known American realist painters of the late 19th century, James Abbot McNeil Whistler has intrigued art history enthusiasts for over a century. Completed in 1871, Arrangement in Grey and Black No., better known as Whistler’s Mother, became one of the most famous and well known of Whistler’s many works. The first full length biography about Whistler’s life, The Life of James McNeil Whistler, includes a chapter devoted to Whistler’s “School-Days in Pomfret” and recollects how dismal the family’s financial situation was following the death of James’s father in 1849. Select etchings recovered from James’s childhood in Pomfret between 1849 and 1852 appear to be the most emotionally driven, unhindered by lessons or training, yet just as advanced and provocative as his later works.
Whistler spent his childhood moving throughout New England and Europe. During his childhood travels in New England, he witnessed firsthand the changing landscape of an industrializing Massachusetts by following the railroad his father, George Whistler, engineered all the way to coastal Stonington, Connecticut.
In 1842, George Whistler received a call to the Russian Imperial Palace and the Whistler family followed. They traveled first to Europe (visiting London and Liverpool) and then east through the rail-less terrain of Russia. In 1849, in the midst of overseeing the construction of Russia’s first railroad between St. Petersburg and Moscow, George Whistler succumbed to cholera. After his passing, Anna Whistler brought her family back to Connecticut. She buried her husband in Stonington next to their two other sons (both whom died there at very young ages). She wrote to a friend, “Nothing but duty to my boys could give me courage to look for a home among strangers.”
A Home Among Strangers
Following the burial of George, Anna Whistler had an annual income of just $1,500. As she searched for a permanent home for her family she wrote to a friend, “Stonington would be my preference, above all others,” but her circumstances landed her in Pomfret.
It was in Pomfret that James Abbott McNeil Whistler received the latter half of his childhood education. With no European entertainment options available to him, James settled into the only thing that brought him pleasure; he produced countless etchings, many of which are currently spread across the country at museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Frick Gallery in New York, and the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut. These formidable works look as though they could have been done by the artist in his later life. A few depict images from the artist’s favorite storybooks, but more reflect his early mastery of realism, showcasing daily life in Pomfret. One particular image, A Fire in Pomfret (1851) depicts a fire being put out on top of a building, drawn as if James floated from above to etch it.
Whistler’s time in Pomfret proved that even without lessons and the community of artists he later surrounded himself with in Paris, he still was capable of producing emotionally provocative and detailed depictions of people doing everyday things. Whistlers reflections of Pomfret convey the complexities of a child’s mind when exposed to troubles brought on by death and poverty.
In 1855, Whistler moved to Europe. Once overseas, he cared little about returning to America, and never did. His mother Anna joined him in London in the 1860s and remained there until her death. Whistler once summarized his feelings for the place where he spent his adolescence by stating: “If I ever make the journey to America, I will go straight to Baltimore, then to West Point, and then sail for England again.”
Christina Volpe works as a historical consultant in archival and cultural resource management. She wrote this article while completing her MA in Public History at Central Connecticut State University.