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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials — James Whistler

American-born but British-based, James Abbott McNeill Whistler combined English cultural refinement with American pugnacity. One of the most prominent painters of the Gilded Age, Whistler was an enthusiastic proponent of the notion of “art for art’s sake.” He was a major influence on Impressionism and helped introduce elements of Japanese art to a Western audience. Let’s learn more about this waspish fellow, justly convinced of his own genius.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on James Whistler.


Usually abbreviated to just The White Girl, this was arguably Whistler’s first famous painting. The central figure in the painting, a woman in white standing on a wolf skin with a white lily in her hand, is modeled on Whistler’s mistress Joanna Hiffernan. As the title suggests, the painting’s primary color scheme is white. Whistler used the term Symphony for his painting to impart the same abstract character to it as music. This convention of borrowing musical terms would recur in Whistler’s work over the next several decades.


The Peacock Room is the name of Frederick Leyland’s London dining room, as remodeled by Whistler and Thomas Jeckyll. Whistler’s painting, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, was initially hung over the fireplace in the room, so he seemed a logical choice to take over for Jeckyll, Leyland’s official decorator, when Jeckyll became ill. Unfortunately, Leyland did not appreciate Whistler’s artistic study in blue and gold, which, to be fair, included painting over a significant part of the room without permission. Leyland and Whistler parted on such bitter terms that Whistler immortalized their disagreement with a painting of two fighting peacocks, named Art and Money: Or, the Story of the Room. Leyland fortunately left the room as is, and it can currently be seen in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.


Often abbreviated to simply Whistler’s Mother, this 1871 painting demonstrated Whistler’s increasing preoccupation with color tone and harmony over subject matter. The artist’s mother, Anna McNeill Whistler, is depicted in profile. The painting is dominated by dark, somber colors interspersed with brighter colors of surprising delicacy, evident in the subtle floral pattern on the black curtain on the left side of the painting. It’s not all gray and black, though: Anna’s golden wedding ring is barely visible. Whistler, genius for harmony that he was, intended for this to complement the golden frame in which the painting hung.


Whistler’s 1875 Nocturne is one of the best examples of his style. Inspired by a fireworks display in London’s Cremorne Gardens, Nocturne features a hazy and insubstantial landscape punctuated by brilliant bursts of color. Smoke from the fireworks obscures the boundaries between water and land, heightening the painting’s sense of otherworldliness.

LIBEL CASE AGAINST RUSKIN: Not everyone was enamored with Nocturne. The English art critic John Ruskin famously accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler, never one to take an insult lying down, sued Ruskin for libel. Whistler ended up winning the case but was awarded only a measly farthing in damages. (A farthing was worth one quarter of a British penny.)


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • Visit this website for a visual tour of the Peacock Room.

  • Whistler delivered numerous lectures on his philosophy of art. The most famous of these may be his Ten O’Clock Lecture.

  • Read this article for a deep dive on the controversy underlying the Ruskin-Whistler libel case.

  • Although he was born in America, Whistler spent much of his life in England and his best art was inspired by the rapidly-changing world he encountered there.

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