When James McNeill Whistler Worked for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey

Most of us know about James McNeill Whistler’s famous work “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1: The Artist’s Mother”, more commonly known as simply “Whistler’s Mother”, but my guess is that we know somewhat less about some of his other works.  For instance, did you know that in the cartographic holdings of the National Archives, in Record Group 23: Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, can be found one of his works?

The story of how James McNeill Whistler ended up working for Coast and Geodetic survey is a rather complicated one, involving an expulsion from school, wandering around somewhat aimlessly for a while, and, finally, catching the right person’s attention at the right time.  And all this this took place well before being one of the most significant figures in American art.

After a row with his chemistry professor at West Point over whether or not silicon was a metal, he was expelled from the program.  For a time after that, he lived in Baltimore with his brother or a family friend but never seemed to actually take on any work.  His family tried to persuade him to take on an apprenticeship in a locomotive factory, which he did not[1].  After deciding that the locomotive industry was not for him, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he met with then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and asked to be re-instated in the program at West Point.  Davis informed him at a subsequent meeting that re-instatement was not possible but, that if he were to report to the Coast and Geodetic Survey, there would be a post available there.

As it happened, the man that he presented himself to at the Coast and Geodetic Survey was a friend of his father’s and he was offered the job.   According to the agency’s records, he was hired in November of 1854, for $1.50 per day.  In very short order, he discovered that he did not like office life and was frequently late for work, which he attributed to a very full social life.  The tardiness eventually because profound enough that his supervisor, out of regards for both Whistler’s talent and Whistler’s father, inquired as to whether his friend John Ross Key would be willing to stop by Whistler’s lodgings on his way in to work and see if he could get him to come along in[2].

Key would recall that Whistler was not overly suited for the job with the Coast and Geodetic Survey, saying:

“The accuracy required in the making of maps and surveys, where mathematical calculations are the foundation of projections upon which are drawn the topographical or hydrographical conventional signs, was not to Whistler’s liking, and the laborious application involved was beyond his nature, or inconsistent with it.[3]

Though he was told explicitly not to spoil the government-owned copper plates that maps were etched on with trivial sketches of things that did not pertain strictly to the hydrography and topography of the location being mapped, he saw the work as dull and did not listen.  He proceeded to add extra little flourishes and touches to the engravings.

RG23-ANNRPT-414a

RG 23: Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey.  Map of Anacapa Island, California.  1854

The chart shown above comes from one of the two Whistler plates that are known to have survived, though another one is rumored to exist, as well.   The Coast and Geodetic Survey map located in the Archive’s holdings is entitled “Sketch of Anacapa Island” and dates to 1854.  Though the plate is signed by several engravers, Whistler’s name is not among them.  It is believed that he etched the far eastern end of the island because the lines in the etching resemble his previous work and because of the addition of two flocks of birds which add scientific value for the map[4].

By 1855, Whistler had left the Coast and Geodetic Survey and had moved on to Paris.

[1] Pennell, E.R. and J.  “The Life of James McNeill Whistler, The New and Revised Edition.”  Pg. 40.  J.B. Lippincott and Co., 1957.

[2] Pennell, E.R. and J.  “The Life of James McNeill Whistler, The New and Revised Edition.”  Pgs. 43-44.  J.B. Lippincott and Co., 1957.

[3] Key, John Ross.  “Recollections of Whistler While in the Office of the United States Coast Survey.”  Pg. 929.  The Century Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 92, No. 6, April 1908.

[4] Pennell, E.R. and J.  “The Life of James McNeill Whistler, The New and Revised Edition.”  Pg. 46.  J.B. Lippincott and Co., 1957.

About Amy Edwards

I am an archives technician working in the Cartography Department of the Special Media Division at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.
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3 Responses to When James McNeill Whistler Worked for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey

  1. dlabinsky says:

    This is neat. My favorite part is “After a row with his chemistry professor at West Point over whether or not silicon was a metal … “

    Like

  2. M.B. Henry says:

    What a neat post! Thanks for sharing

    Like

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