Closer Readings Commentary

How to Make the Most of “James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty” in the Classroom

Who Was James McNeill Whistler?

The new Karen Thomas 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 contains a 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.)


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Overview of Classroom Resources and Standards

The website’s lesson plans and activities can teach students how Whistler’s creative struggle 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, 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.


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Exploring the Lesson Plans

The website's lessons roughly echo the film’s major themes about Whistler: his life, personality, and struggle to create “art for art’s sake;” the importance of his drawing, and his printing techniques; and how Asian art influenced Whistler’s move from realism to almost abstract compositions. You have the option of using these lessons as written or pick and choose resources and activities that fit students’ particular needs. Works of art discussed in the lessons are available in downloadable JPEG format. Because these lessons may be used from grades 6–12, teachers can select grade specific standards.

Lesson 1. Whistler’s Quest for Beauty

Students should first watch James McNeill Whistler & the Case for Beauty to gain an overview of Whistler and his art before embarking on this lesson. By engaging with information from the website’s “Artist and the Market Place” essay, and “Comparative Timeline of Whistler’s Life and World Events,” students can “relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding” as required by National Core Arts Anchor Connecting Standard 11.

Students will answer Arts Anchor Responding Standard 7 to “perceive and analyze artistic work,” as they study Whistler’s painting The Balcony and his figure studies. They sketch figures, which satisfies Arts Anchor Creating Standard 1, requiring students to “generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.”

Students also have the opportunity to put their new knowledge about Whistler to work by planning an exhibit, thus satisfying the Visual Arts Anchor Presenting Standard 4 requiring students to “analyze, interpret, and select artistic work for presentation.”

Lesson 2. Japanese Influence on Whistler’s Landscape Composition

Asian influence on the course of Western art in the late 19th century cannot be overestimated and its effect on Whistler was profound. Whistler, like Japanese artists, raised the horizon line in his prints and paintings. In this lesson, students compare Whistler’s etching Upright Venice with Hiroshige’s woodblock print View of Mogami River and Gassan Mountain, Dewa and practice placing the horizon line in different locations in their photographs or sketches.

The lesson fulfills Visual Arts Standards for creating and responding. For example, 8th grade students should, “Interpret art by analyzing art-making approaches, the characteristics of form and structure, relevant contextual information, subject matter, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.”

For ELA teachers, reading a short article “Inspiration from the East,” and writing an essay describing how Whistler’s enthusiasm for Asian art influenced his artwork also allows students to meet the ELA Literacy standards for drawing “evidence from … informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research” and writing informative “texts to examine a topic and convey ideas …”

Lesson 3. Whistler’s Drawing and Etching Techniques

Etching was a very important medium of personal expression for Whistler. Here, students come to an understanding of the technical process of this art form through both observation and hands-on activity. They observe a step-by-step demonstration of the etching technique in the entertaining short video, Heart, Hand & Eye—The Process of Etching, and then go on to study Whistler’s drawing and composition in two etchings, observing how he drew lines to create dark and light values and how he often framed views within an entry. To test their understanding of this process, students then draw an entryway and what’s behind it (which may be imaginative). This activity satisfies Visual Arts Creation Anchor Standard 2 to organize and develop artistic ideas and work.

Moreover, as students write short descriptions of their entryway drawings, they also fulfill CCSS ELA Literacy standards for writing. For example, in grade 6 students will “Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.”

Lesson 4. Evolution of Nocturnes, Towards Abstraction

How did Whistler’s art transition from a realistic style to abstraction and what kind of repercussion did this cause in contemporary society? What was the influence of Japanese prints in this evolution? Students will explore these questions and observe increasing abstraction in the artist’s compositions in this lesson by comparing a Hiroshige print, Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother, and finally his nocturne paintings, particularly Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket.

Students will become immersed in reading excerpts including Whistler’s defense of his abstract art against famous art critic John Ruskin from Whistler v. Ruskin, the trial in which this latter work was exhibited upside down. Students deepen their knowledge by role-playing the trial and writing an analytical criticism of Whistler’s Falling Rocket, therefore satisfying the Core Curriculum English Language Literacy Standards RI.RI.11-12.6 “Determine the relevance of criteria used by others to evaluate a work of art or collection of works” and RI.11-12.7 for integrating and evaluating “multiple sources of information presented in different media … as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.”

In the lesson’s “Studio Art Experience,” students examine a local scene before painting their own nonliteral picture of it from memory, much as Whistler did when he observed London’s Thames River at night before returning to his studio to paint misty nearly abstract nocturnes. This exercise satisfies the 8th grade Visual Arts creating standard to “Demonstrate willingness to experiment, innovate, and take risks to pursue ideas, forms, and meanings that emerge in the process of art-making or designing.”

By writing artists' statements and displaying them with their paintings, students also fulfill the 7th grade Visual Arts creating standard to “Reflect on and explain important information about personal artwork in an artist statement or another format,” as well as CCSS ELA Literacy.W.11-12.4 to “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.”

James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty reveals the artist as an original, tirelessly inventive artist who not only gave visible form to the refined aestheticism of his age, but who also went far beyond his period in his persistent development of new ways of seeing. By delving into the classroom resources described here, students will better understand the nature and significance of Whistler’s contribution—and, even more, they will able re-experience it by making art of their own.


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