Closer Readings Commentary

“James McNeill Whistler & the Case for Beauty” in the Classroom

Kaye PassmoreDr. Kaye Passmore writes and develops art education materials, including the ones for this film. She has taught high school art and art education at Rowan University and in Lesley University’s national outreach program.

The new PBS documentary James McNeill Whistler & the Case for Beauty is a treasure trove of information for the classroom on this pivotal American artist, tracing his life and artistic development from his youth as an American expatriate child living with his family in St. Petersburg, Russia, through his aesthetically designed dinner parties that were the talk of London society, to his friendship with other late 19th-century artists and writers such as Oscar Wilde.

Whistler was the original art star in the era of “art for art’s sake” and developed an extraordinary public persona to attract attention to himself and his art. Arguing with anyone who dared criticize his work, he even sued the foremost art critic of the day, John Ruskin, who claimed that Whistler had “thrown a pot of paint in the public’s face” with an 1875 abstract rendition of a nighttime fireworks display over the Thames that the artist called Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket. (Whistler won the case, but the whole affair plunged him into financial ruin and destroyed his reputation with erstwhile clients.)

Despite his penchant for aesthetic hoopla and his professional hardships, Whistler remained a tireless, talented artist. Inspired by Asian art, particularly Japanese prints, his paintings and prints gradually became more abstract, leading the way to one of the most significant developments in 20th-century art.

A free, streaming version of the film is now on the PBS website, where a DVD version is also available. However, the film director’s companion website on Whistler at Film Odyssey holds wealth of educational resources for the classroom as well as for museum educators. (Both sites are conveniently available through EDSITEment’s Best of Web link.)

Overview of teaching resources and standards

The website’s four lesson plans and activities can teach students how Whistler’s struggle to create revolutionized the art world and what we now consider to be “fine art.” These resources are closely woven with the many other offerings on the website as well as the film itself, thus allowing students to come to a deeper understanding of Whistler and his age, as well as of art making.

The classroom resources conform to the new Visual Arts standards for grades 6–12. In addition, grades 6–12 ELA teachers will discover nonfiction informational reading texts that satisfy Common Core Standards for determining key ideas and details. The texts, video, and art images provide students opportunities to integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats as required in CCSS Anchor Standard 7 for Reading literacy: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.”

You can locate the materials on the “Educators” link in the navigation bar. With these tools, students can easily follow the evolution of Whistler’s art and do much more, such as:

  • Engage in a step-by-step demonstration by master printmaker Norman Ackroyd as he creates an etching in a 15-minute streaming video Heart, Hand & EyeThe Process of Etching;
  • Download an enviable variety of visual and historical resources including Japanese prints; select images of Whistler’s art; articles about the artist’s search for identity; excerpts from Whistler’s lawsuit against art critic John Ruskin; and a timeline of his life and world events.

Want more review of the lessons? Each of the four lessons:

  • Whistler’s Quest for Beauty;
  • Japanese Influence on Whistler’s Landscape Composition;
  •  Whistler’s Drawing and Etching Techniques; and
  •  Evolution of Nocturnes, Towards Abstraction

is covered, complete with connections to NCCAS and CCSS anchor standards, at How to Make the Most of James McNeill Whistler & the Case for Beauty in the Classroom.