Whistler's Mother by James McNeill Whistler in 1871, medium - Oil on canvas, location - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
It was painted on a whim: In 1871, the Massachusetts-born painter had received a commission from a Member of Parliament to paint his daughter, Maggie Graham. When several sittings failed to provide any form of a finished painting, Maggie flaked on Whistler after he had already prepared a canvas, so he asked his mother to literally stand in. Or, as his mother explained in one of many letters that unintentionally wrote the history of this piece, "If the youthful Maggie had not failed Jemie," as she called her son, "in the picture which I trust he may yet finish from Mr. Grahame [sic], he would have had no time for my portrait."
Whistler's mother originally stood: Standing still for long stretches proved difficult for the aging lady, and she later wrote to her sister, "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."
It's bigger than you might think: Measuring in at 56.8 inches by 64.2 inches, Whistler's mother is almost life-size within the frame. Whistler didn't call the piece Whistler's Mother: Following in a theme of naming his paintings like musical compositions, Whistler dubbed this portrait Arrangement in Grey and Black - Portrait of the Painter's Mother. Eventually, it became known as Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. Whistler's Mother is a nickname popularized by the public.
Whistler's Mother was one of his biggest fans: A true Victorian, Anna McNeill Whistler was religious and always tried to be a good housewife and mother. Widowed at 45, she was deeply devoted to her surviving children. In 1864, she moved to London to be closer to them, eventually becoming aware of James's bohemian lifestyle. Though we might assume the debauchery of that life would fluster the devout mum, she supported her son by being his model, his caretaker, and even on occasion his art agent. Anna once wrote of him, "The artistic circle in which he is only too popular, is visionary and unreal tho so fascinating. God answered my prayers for his welfare by leading me here."
American viewers got a good look at the piece during the depression: During the Great Depression, the piece traveled America in a 13-city tour, which included a stop at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. From this exposure, America fell hard for Whistler's Mother. She was not only featured on a 1934 stamp, but also inspired an 8-foot-tall bronze statue erected high on a hill overlooking Ashland, Pennsylvania. Built by the Ashland Boys' Association in 1938 as an ode to mothers everywhere, the pedestal of this monument quotes the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, reading "A Mother is the Holiest Thing Alive."
The painting got political during World War - I: In 1915, the painting was co-opted by the Irish Canadian Rangers 199th Overseas Battalion to encourage volunteers to enlist. It received mixed reviews: Debuting in London when flamboyance and romanticism were all the rage, Whistler's Mother was not what the art world wanted. The London Times sneered, "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 offense." Conversely, a Paris critic was modestly impressed, writing, "It was disturbing, mysterious, of a different color 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."
The Royal Academy initially rejected it: The members of the Academy couldn't wrap their heads around the painting's perceived severity. But Whistler had an ally in English artist and director of the National Gallery William Boxall, who pushed the Academy to reconsider, and the Academy ultimately accepted Whistler's Mother, albeit begrudgingly. While the portrait hung in their esteemed halls, it was tucked away in a poor location. Whistler felt this burn so much that he never submitted another work to the Academy.
An iconic museum redeemed its reputation: In 1891, the prestigious Parisian museum Musée du Luxembourg purchased the work. Whistler was elated, writing, "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." He was right. Following the Luxembourg's acquisition, his reputation improved, as did his popularity among patrons.
It has bounced around a bit since then: Though it has occasionally crossed the sea for American exhibitions, Whistler's Mother has been the property of the French Government for over a century. But its home within France has shifted. In 1922, the painting moved from the Luxembourg to the Louvre. Sixty-four years later, the popular portrait settled in the Musée d'Orsay, which is still its permanent home (when it's not touring to other museums around the world.)
It has become one of the most famous American works abroad: Described as the Victorian Mona Lisa, Whistler's Mother has become so iconic and so ubiquitous in the global culture that it has been favorably compared to The Scream, Mona Lisa, and American Gothic.
The writer is an entertainment journalist
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