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James McNeill Whistler, James McNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Yellow and Gray: Effie Deans, c. 1876–78. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, on loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
In the early 1870s James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) began using veils of paint and smudges of dark color to depict London's fog-bound Thames. He called these nighttime pictures Nocturnes. With no place to imagine a footing, no details to lure the sense of touch, and with nothing to encourage a story, they perplexed many viewers. So, too, did his late, shadowy portraits, in which he aimed to convey truths of a given personality captured as if done in a single sitting. Though they look spontaneous, Whistler's paintings were produced with deliberation, care, and, as he said, "the experience of a lifetime." He hid the hard work, writing, "A picture is finished when all trace of the means used to bring about the end has disappeared." To appreciate his pictures fully, he urged people to see them from a distance, not allowing questions of technique or details of surface to distract from the effect of the whole.

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