Whistler’s father


Dear Artist,

The psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow in his studies of “self-actualizing people” made some interesting discoveries about the fathers of eminent offspring, particularly sons. It seems that certain dads are perceived as “not successful.” These dads are not necessarily losers, but rather men who risked much and fell short. Maslow’s inference was that sons may succeed because their fathers failed.


“Art happens – no hovel is safe from it, no prince can depend on it, the vastest intelligence cannot bring it about.” (James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1834 – 1903) Whistler gained access to a patron’s home after an argument and painted two fighting peacocks meant to represent the artist and his patron — The Peacock Room.

James McNeill Whistler and his dad George are typical of this profile. George, an army engineer and entrepreneur had trouble with jobs and personal finances. Frequent work changes, employee mistrust and professional misjudgment stalked his life. Nevertheless, exuding bravado, he charmed the Tsar of Russia and died while attempting an ambitious plan to build a railway through four hundred miles of Siberian swamp. In Dr. Maslow’s research the sons of such adventurers who go on to achieve highly are disorderly, sloppy, anarchic, chaotic, vague, doubtful, indefinite and inexact. Maslow considered these to be desirable characteristics for success in the arts and for life in general. Also, these sorts of sons have little need to please others and are often indifferent to what others think.


The Peacock Room, James McNeill Whistler’s masterpiece of interior decorative mural art

Whistler, the son, exhibited these characteristics. He also carried on the family tradition of cleverness, wit, wisdom, quarreling and publicity. In 1890 he wrote a book about his movements among the glitterati: The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Being a celebrity was Whistler’s game. Driven to excel, he mastered painting, etching and lithography as well as illustration and interior decoration. Along with his disorderly self-focus came unique imagery and pioneer insights. He named his paintings for types of musical compositions such as nocturnes and symphonies. He believed paintings, like music, ought to be abstract. Forms were to be more important than subject matter. His work was characterized by flattened pictorial elements and decentralized or unsymmetrical compositions.

According to Maslow the traits needed for eminence are “childlike spontaneity, fearlessness in the face of the unknown, attraction to the mysterious and the puzzling.” He also implied a father figure who started something that needed some sort of completion.


“Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain”

Best regards,


PS: “Art and joy go together, with bold openness, and high head, and ready hand – fearing naught and dreading no exposure.” (James Abbot McNeill Whistler, 1834-1903)

Esoterica: Father or no father, what is at the base of all this is an unrequited ego. Without ego-power the potential creator goes nowhere. Unfinished business, however enacted, is a force in the attainment of greatness. “As far as painting is concerned there is only Degas and myself.” (Whistler)

This letter was originally published as “Whistler’s father” on August 13, 2004.


“The Creditor” 1862

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“Two and two continue to make four, in spite of the whine of the amateur for three, or the cry of the critic for five.” (James Abbott McNeill Whistler)



  1. Whistler and Oscar Wilde had a very public feud going for awhile, they concocted this for publicity, just to get their names in the Paper, but would drink together in private. Your Father did a post on me once called ” Whistlers Dilemma ” Having the same name as one of the greats, and how to sign my paintings without shirt- tailing on the name. But I’m related to Whistler and it’s my name too. Whistler never signed his painting “Whistler” as I do, Robert Whistler is just to long. He did sign his full name early in his career but changed to the abstract W which became the Butterfly logo. http://www.RobertWhistlerFineArts.com

  2. Maslow also advocated for s supportive social structure to support self-actualization. Take a look at his pyramid of needs and development and tell me that it doesn’t look a little bit like democratic socialism.

  3. In this article, nothing is said about the fact that Maslow writes only of sons, not of daughters. Doesn’t that make the research glaringly incomplete?

  4. You are correct Rick, it does sound like democratic socialism. I’m all for it. Being Canadian it is not a great surprise! and Ann, I love being woman. I suspect we are driven by different priorities… I more into peaceful relationships… something to do with a lack of testosterone.

  5. Thanks Sara for the fine notes on Whistler – I would like to add that a career in the arts may be easier for one who is okay with running around in the places in society where art is appreciated and where art BUYERS and PATRONS live.

    I keep Whistler’s biography on my shelf because it was a gift from a client who used it to say how little he knew about art – except for Whistler’s Mother in cartoons when he was a boy, etc. :-D If you can get yourself parodied, you’ve made it, I guess


    • If you have a good biography of JMcNW, then maybe you could verify for me something I heard about 50 years ago:
      that in his younger years he was employed by the US Coast Survey in their Nautical Charts Division, but that he soon got fired for doodling in the margins of the charts he was supposed to be preparing.

  6. Dear Sara,
    I always enjoy your posts, and always your father’s too! Have saved many of them in my AOL file cabinet, but this one I specially like…and liked the paintings you included as well…it is so interesting to know the nature of artists, the tremendous variety of personality!
    Thank you for the ongoing good things said!!

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