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I was surprised when . . . he said to me: Mother, I want you to stand for me. It is what I have long intended and desired to do, to take your portrait. —Anna Whistler to her sister Kate Palmer, November 3, 18711(p40)
I was surprised when . . . he said to me: Mother, I want you to stand for me. It is what I have long intended and desired to do, to take your portrait.
—Anna Whistler to her sister Kate Palmer, November 3, 18711(p40)
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), American. Cover: Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother, 1871. Oil on canvas,144.3 × 162.4 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris/Bridgeman Art Library. Figure appearing in the “Art and Images in Psychiatry” article: Whistler’s Mother, ca 1870-1873. Drypoint on paper, 25.2 × 15.3 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.252.
The James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) painting Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother is his most famous painting; it has become an icon and has been endlessly characterized. Whistler’s celebrity was secured in 1891, when the French government purchased “Whistler’s Mother” for eventual placement in the Louvre (now in the Musée d’Orsay). Although commentary on the painting often has focused on the portrait of his mother herself, sometimes criticizing the painting as lacking in sentimentality and warmth, qualities expected in a portrait of one’s mother, this was not Whistler’s view. When asked about the painting by a newspaper, The World(May 22, 1878), he said:
Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an Arrangement in Grey and Black. Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?
Whistler sought to create a particular mood or atmosphere in his painting, breaking with convention when he titled his paintings “symphonies,” “nocturnes,” and “arrangements.” His paintings were to be evocative like music. Art must stand alone, appealing to the artistic sense rather than to such emotions as devotion, pity, love, and patriotism. Anderson and Koval2 cite a review in the Times of London stating that for Whistler,
. . . painting is so closely akin to music that the colors of the one may and should be used, like the ordered sounds of the other, as means and influences of vague emotion; that painting should not be expressing dramatic emotions, depicting incidents of history, or recording facts of nature, but should be content with moulding our moods and stirring our imaginations, by subtle combinations of colour through which all that painting has to say to us can be said, and beyond which painting has no value or true speech whatever.2(p466)
In The Gentle Art of Making Enemies,3 Whistler wrote, “The masterpiece should appear as the flower to the painter—perfect in its bud as in its bloom—with no reason to explain its presence—no mission to fulfill, a joy to the artist. . . .”1(p27)He sued the critic John Ruskin, who accused him of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face,”1(p234)and won a moral victory for the artist against the critic.
Whistler’s mother was personally important to him: she indulged him as a child and as an adult and provided him important personal supports throughout her lifetime. Whistler was born in Lowell, Mass, and christened James Abbott Whistler. He adopted his mother’s maiden name, McNeill, as an additional middle name as an adult and married only after her death. He was the son of a West Point graduate and civil engineer, Major George Washington Whistler, and his second wife, Anna Matilda McNeill. When Whistler was 9 years old, his family, over his mother’s objections, moved to St Petersburg, Russia, where his father served as consultant engineer in the building of the Moscow–St Petersburg railroad. While there, the young Whistler studied drawing at the Imperial Academy of Science and announced his intention to become an artist.
After his father’s death from cholera in 1849 after 6 years in Russia, Whistler returned to the United States with his family. He enrolled in the Military Academy at West Point in 1851, where he excelled in a drawing class but was dismissed in 1854 for “deficiency” in his studies. He worked briefly at the Winans Locomotive Works in Baltimore, Md, and the drawings division of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey but was not satisfied at either job. Despite his mother’s objections, Whistler left the United States at age 21 years to study art in Paris and never returned. There, he rejected the artistic standards of the day, which insisted that paintings portray subjects realistically, tell a story, express moral values, or address biblical or mythological themes. Whistler created art for art’s sake, organizing line and color to create aesthetic beauty.
Anna Matilda McNeill (1804-1881) was the daughter of an American physician and a devout Christian. When her best friend died, she became surrogate mother to her children and subsequently married their father. She had 5 sons, 3 of whom who died in childhood. James, her first, became an artist and William a physician. After her husband’s death, she signed her letters to James “your widowed mother” or “your afflicted widowed mother”1 and habitually wore black throughout the rest of her life. During the Civil War, she went to England to join him. Whistler had little more than a week’s notice of her arrival in January 1864. He wrote to a friend that the notice of her arrival turned his world upside down, necessitating that he “empty his house and purify it from cellar to eves, look for a buen retiro for Jo [his mistress].”2(p141)His mother became “his housekeeper, agent, personal assistant, and religious mentor.”4(p25)Whistler was egotistical and demanding, and her presence was stabilizing. She warned him of the dangers of being a butterfly, flitting from “one temptation to idleness to another.”5(p29)
When his 15-year-old model, Maggie Grahame, daughter of a Member of Parliament, failed to appear one afternoon, probably exhausted from hours of sitting only to see Whistler rub out her portrait and start anew, Whistler asked his mother to pose. Initially she was posed standing “like a statue,”1(p158)but as it was too great an effort to maintain that pose, she was allowed to sit “perfectly at her ease.”1(p158)She was painted in late summer or early autumn of 1871. Although he seems to have begun the painting on impulse, the idea of painting her may have been brewing for some time. Walden1 refers to a drypoint (Figure) that may have antedated the painting, although this is not known. (Drypoint is a method of intaglio printmaking where the artist scratches directly on a metal plate with a sharp instrument and watercolor is added to create the desired effect.) This drypoint is not an “arrangement,” a tonal painting, but is indeed a portrait of Whistler’s mother. It shows her standing as he had intended for the portrait. Her full face is shown as she calmly engages the viewer as she might have her son.
Whistler’s Mother, drypoint on paper, ca 1870-1873.
In the tonal painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, a very different feeling is evoked. His mother is shown sitting in a chair, facing left, her feet resting on a stool, with dark draperies and framed black prints in the background, apparently reflecting puritanical rectitude. The drapery is a beautiful patterned blue; the footstool provides balance. The background is his studio as it was, simply decorated. He was deeply influenced by Japanese art and sought harmony and simplicity in his surroundings. For Whistler and for his mother, his art was his religion.
Whistler’s portrait has become a touchstone for views of motherhood. In the 1930s, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, toured the United States, and she was described as the epitome of motherhood. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother, Mrs James Roosevelt, visited on the last day of the exhibit. The US Post Office prepared a 3-cent stamp in memory and honor of American mothers showing the painting but, not knowing Whistler’s intent, added a bowl of flowers for her to view, to the consternation of art critics. In recent times, she has been described as touchingly melancholic by some and sternly authoritarian by others and is often the subject of cartoons. Perhaps it is best to reflect on what she was actually thinking as she posed for her son. In her letter to Kate Palmer in November 1871, she described her son’s frustration as he painted her and her delight in his joy when the painting was completed. She wrote:
I heard him ejaculate, “No! I can’t get it right! it is impossible to do it as it ought to be done perfectly!” I silently lifted my heart, that it might be as the Net cast down in the Lake at the Lord’s will, as I observed his trying again, and oh my grateful rejoicing in spirit as suddenly my own dear Son would exclaim, “Oh, Mother it is mastered, it is beautiful!” and he would kiss me for it!2(p180)
Harris JC. Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62(12):1294–1295. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.12.1294
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