James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No.1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871, oil on canvas. Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

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Symphony in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother
(“Whistler’s Mother”)

"Art should be independent of all clap-trap—should…appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it…Take the picture of my mother…as an Arrangement in Grey and Black. Now that is what it is…what can or ought the public care about the identity of the portrait?”
—J. M. Whistler, from The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890

Popularly known as “Whistler’s Mother,” this painting appeared radical in its time for its spare, unsentimental, and unflattering portrayal of the painter’s mother. As noted in the quote above, Whistler insisted that the sitter’s identity was secondary to the painting’s aesthetic purpose: to organize shape and color in a pleasing manner.

While some understood Whistler’s goals, many wanted to derive some sentimentality from the portrait. More than one critic suggested that Whistler had depicted his mother “after her death.” Another complained that the work was the "experiment of an eccentric.” Nevertheless, the painting was shown in several European venues, receiving mixed reactions along the way. A critic wrote in the London Times in 1872: “An artist who could deal with large masses so grandly might have shown a little less severity, and thrown in a few details of interest without offence.” A Parisian critic wrote in 1884: “It was disturbing, mysterious, of a different colour from those we are accustomed to seeing. Also the canvas was scarcely covered, its grain almost invisible; the compatibility of the grey and the truly inky black was a joy to the eye, surprised by these unusual harmonies.”

More than a decade after the painting was first shown, the French government purchased it to be displayed at the Luxembourg Museum. Whistler was ecstatic about his vindication. He said, “Just think—to go and look at one’s own picture hanging on the walls of Luxembourg—remembering how it was treated in England—to be met everywhere with deference and treated with respect…and to know that all this is…a tremendous slap in the face to the Academy and the rest! Really it is like a dream.” (December 1884) The honor of having his work displayed in such a prestigious institution helped the artist attract and secure wealthy American patrons and elevated his reputation in Europe as a bold, dynamic painter.

Who Was Whistler’s Mother?
Anna McNeill Whistler was a model woman according to the Victorian standards of her day: she was pious, submissive, and her life centered on domestic issues. She lived in three countries, witnessed the United States Civil War, often served as her son’s art agent and, later in life, was fascinated by the eclectic group of individuals that formed her son’s artistic circle.

She suffered great tragedy at an early age, losing her husband and three of her children to illness while the family lived in Russia. In 1863 she moved to London and lived on and off with James and her other children. She was very involved in James’s life, and was familiar with his fellow artists, students, patrons and collectors. She wrote that the: “artistic circle in which he is only too popular, is visionary and unreal tho so fascinating.”

As was customary for a woman of her social class, Anna Whistler kept in touch with her family and friends through letters. Today, her correspondence is used by historians seeking to understand the social issues of the day, and by art historians who find her descriptions of her son’s work and life an invaluable resource. Following is an excerpt from a letter to her sister where she discusses sitting for her portrait: “I was not as well then as I am now, but never distress Jemie [James] by complaints, so I stood bravely, two or three days, whenever he was in the mood for studying me as his pictures are studies, and I so interested stood as a statue! But realized it to be too great an effort, so my dear patient Artist who is gently patient as he is never wearying in his perseverance concluding to paint me sitting perfectly at my ease.”

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