Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Whistler spent much of his childhood in Russia, studied art in Paris, and painted his most important paintings in England. His earliest canvases related closely to the work of such French painters as Courbet, Degas, and Fantin-Latour; but after his move to London in 1860 he rejected French "Realism" and developed the notion that paintings should depend not on representation or narrative content but on arrangements of form and color that evoke mood somewhat as music does.
Whistler's draftsmanship was both revolutionary and influential; to American artists he was undoubtedly the most influential draftsman of the nineteenth century. His drawings, like his paintings, stress evocation of mood rather than description and are original in both their manner of linework and their choice of media. As David Curry has pointed out, in a recent catalogue, Whistler was deeply influenced by artists of the French eighteenth century, particularly Watteau. From Watteau he derived a delight in colored and textured papers and a love of pastel, chalk, charcoal, and other granular materials. Unlike most French masters of pastel, however, Whistler did not attempt to duplicate the effects of paint and employed little stumping or blending. His drawings remain predominantly linear in execution: in fact, his use of crosshatching and shading, although more shadowy in effect, relates most closely to mid-nineteenth-century book and magazine illustration. This is not surprising considering that Whistler's earliest sketches were copies and imitations of works of this type by masters ranging from Cruikshank to Gavarni.
For both etchings and drawings Whistler favored unusual papers. His friend and biographer Joseph Pennell wrote, in an account of an excursion in Paris, that Whistler exulted in the discovery of three folio volumes of old paper, which had been used to press a collection of dried leaves; and he observed in another account, of Whistler's early years in Paris from 1855 to 1859, that, "he was then already hunting for beautiful old paper, loitering at the boxes along the quais, tearing out the fly-leaves from the fine old books he found there."