Art historians tend to be biography-averse; lives of artists, in presenting the day-to-day, fail to do justice to the work. This is not to say that the genre cannot amplify our understanding of a painter or sculptor. One has only to think of Hilary Spurling’s magnificent two-volume life of Matisse, which illuminates his ancestry and gives proper space to his complex relationship with the applied arts. Likewise, the first volume of John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso, written in collaboration with the scholar Marilyn McCully, brings out the vital importance of Picasso’s Spanish origins. And certain artists exert a fatal attraction, drawing biographers as moths to pheromones: none more than the subject of Daniel Sutherland’s Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake.
As an artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler was preoccupied with the physical and intellectual challenges of paint, pastel, watercolour and drawing and with the fugitive technologies of etching, drypoint and lithography. He sought to understand light as translated into brushwork and he learned from contemporary artists, Dutch Old Masters, Velázquez,