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Most of James Abbott McNeil's first series of artwork prioritised people over places, including the Portrait of Whistler with a Hat. This self-portrait showcases the artist wearing a loose dandy hat. Most conventionalists state the portrait is reminiscent of young Robert Louis Stevenson in this portrait.
This 1858 piece was among James' initial creations with the help of his French master Auguste Delatre. During this time, the French movement was at its highest peak. It advocated for the use of realism as opposed to other painting techniques. Pieces created in years 1857-1858 showcase the artist's realistic streak, and the traditional art methods he learnt at school. At the time, James Abbott McNeil had just travelled to Paris to study painting. He adopted the Bohemian lifestyle and was soon drawn to the French modern movement and their enthusiasm for realism painting style. James Abbott McNeil studied the under the apprenticeship of Marc Charles Gabriel who strongly advocated for the use of black colour and line to create emphatic pieces.
He cited black is an essential color for creating tonal harmony in art. The Portrait of Whistler with a Hat is also influenced by the realism painting style, which allowed painters to portray the brutality of life. As a result, artists who adapted this style created detailed, unadorned, pieces that avoided old themes of allegory and mythology. His work during this period was influenced by his teacher Marc Charles Gabriel, though James also struck a strong friendship with Henri Fantin-Latour who latter inspired his creations. Through him, Abbott also met Gustave Courbet and Francois Bonvin whose ideologies and theories of modern art influenced James’ pieces.
Gustave Courbet was the first painter to consciously proclaim and use the realism painting style. The technique was birthed after his 1855 piece, The Studio and was rejected by the Exposition Universelle. Henri Fantin-Latour, another painter who inspired his work, is remembered for his independent painting style. Most of his portraits were arranged in rows of figures and heads to mimic the 17th century guild portraits. During the 1857-1858 period, James Abbott McNeil had not discovered his distinct painting style. As such, most of his pieces during this period were largely influenced by the trending painting practices and his artistry skills. The Twelve Etchings from Nature, also known as The French Set, is another piece he created during that period.