Text by Deanna MacDonald
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When this painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1872, it created a scandal. Not for its style or subject but simply because of its title. Called Arrangement in Grey and Black no. 1, it is a portrait of a 67-year-old American named Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler (1804–81), who had been painted by her son with whom she had lived in London since 1863. To a Victorian England audience, steeped in the era’s sentimental view of motherhood, to reduce one’s own mother to an ‘arrangement’ was deemed outrageous.
However, her son, who rarely shied away from publicity, did not think his sitter’s identity important: ‘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? The merit of the piece should lie in the arrangement’. Despite the artist’s disclaimer, this celebrated painting is usually known today as ‘Whistler’s Mother’.
Witty, flamboyant and just a bit of a devil, Whistler always claimed he had little interest in narrative or allegory. His aesthetic aim was to capture the poetic mood of pictorial and musical harmony and thus called all his works ‘arrangements’ or ‘harmonies’. ‘Art…should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of the eye or ear,’ wrote Whistler. ‘…As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of light’. His aim was an exquisitely designed moment, not a realistic slice of life. He loved Asian art, particularly Japanese prints, from which he learned to simplify lines and employ subtle neutral hues and tonal variations. And all this comes into play in this familial portrait.
The result is oddly contradictory, mixing an austere formal composition and a nuanced symphony of greys, blues and yellows. Mrs Whistler sits in rigid profile – a prim old lady in black and lace whose firm, thin lips suggest all the stern moral character of Puritan America. Yet she looks out-of-place; her son has placed her in a room that reflected his own refined tastes, from the Japanese footstool to the delicate curtain to the view of the Thames hanging on the wall, referring to his experimentation with prints. It was as if Whistler was trying to combine two disparate parts of his life: his American heritage and the bohemian artist he had become.
Whistler’s mother is simply an unexpected part of the decorative ensemble. Her opinion of this portrait and her son’s artistic theories is unrecorded. However one wonders if Whistler’s mother – a woman who had married a railway engineer from Massachusetts, moved her young family to Russia (where her husband designed the St Petersburg-Moscow railway for Tsar Nicolas I), lived in genteel poverty after her husband’s death yet managed to send her sons to West Point (where James flunked out), then moving to Paris where James reinvented himself as an avant-garde artist – could really have been that surprised by her son’s work.
Whistler had worked with Courbet, socialised with Manet, Monet and Degas. Fantin-Latour included Whistler in a group portrait of the rising artistic stars (including Baudelaire, Manet and others) of 1864, Homage to Delacroix. Whistler was also a showman and a provocateur. His fastidious friend Degas once chastised him: ‘You behave as though you had no talent’.
Yet not everyone thought the portrait so shocking and it was later acquired by the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris to Whistler’s narcissistic delight; he wrote: ‘Just think – to go and look at one’s own picture hanging on the walls of Luxembourg – remembering how it had been treated in England – to be met everywhere with deference and 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’.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1870 Claude Monet: Hotel des Roches-Noires, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
1871 George Frederic Watts: Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, London, National Gallery