From Aestheticism to the Modern Movement: Whistler, the Artists Colony of St. Ives and Australia 1884-1910

Thomson, Jonathan Wyville
Supervisor: Prof. G.M. Thomas

This study of Whistler, the artists’ colony of St Ives and Australia 1884 – 1910 is a compendious analysis of the complex relationships between the British American artist James McNeill Whistler and the aesthetic movement, between Whistler’s aestheticism and the development of modernist art practice both in England and Australia, between the art establishment and the development of a modern market for art, between artists and their social, economic and political environment, between artists and their audiences, and between notions of artistic identity and nationalism. These are not simple binary concerns but multilateral issues that impact on each other in many different ways. The artists’ colony of St Ives in England at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century is an important site for exploring all of these issues.

Whistler was of central importance to the establishment of the artists’ colony of St Ives. His aestheticism and assertion of the centrality of individual artistic identity gave the colony not just a style and motif but a whole raison d’être. Moonlit paintings and seascapes became vehicles for exploring particular concerns with aspects of modern life and formalist aspects of contemporary art practice.

A number of Australian artists also played an important role in the on-going vitality of the artists’ colony of St Ives. Concomitantly, their experience of living and working at St Ives was fundamentally important in facilitating the transmittal of important developments in contemporary art to Australia at a decisive time in its cultural development.