(born July 11, 1834, Lowell, Mass., U.S.—died July 17, 1903, London, Eng.) U.S.-born British painter, etcher, and lithographer. He attended West Point but soon abandoned the army for art. In 1855 he arrived in Paris to study painting and adopted a bohemian lifestyle. In 1863 he moved to London, where he had considerable success, becoming widely famous for his wit and large public presence. During the 1860s and '70s he began to use musical terms in the h1s of his paintings, such as Symphony and Harmony, reflecting his belief in the “correspondences” between the arts. During this period he started to paint his “nocturnes”—scenes of London, especially of Chelsea, that have poetic intensity. For them he evolved a special technique by which paint, in a very liquid state he called a sauce, was stroked onto the canvas in fast sweeps of the brush, somewhat in the manner of Japanese calligraphy (he was an outspoken advocate of Japanese arts). From the 1870s onward he was preoccupied by the problems of portrait painting, creating a number of masterpieces, including Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: The Artist's Mother (1871–72), known as Whistler's Mother. These paintings underline his aestheticism, his liking for simple forms and muted tones, and his dependence on the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. In 1877 he brought a libel suit against John Ruskin for attacking his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875); he won his case but received damages of only a farthing, and the costs of the suit temporarily bankrupted him. Considered one of the leading painters of his day, after his death his reputation declined. Only in the later 20th century did Whistler begin to receive serious acclaim once again.
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Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother, famous under its colloquial name Whistler's Mother, is an 1871 oil-on-canvas painting by American-born painter James McNeill Whistler. The painting is 56.81 x 63.94 inches (144.3 x 162.4 cm), displayed in a frame of Whistler's own design, and is now owned by the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. It occasionally tours worldwide. Although an icon of American art, it rarely appears in the United States, having toured in 1932-1934, appeared at the National Gallery of Art in 1994 and the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2004. It appeared at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from June to September 2006.
The work was shown at the 104th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art in London (1872), but first came within a hair's breadth of rejection by the Academy. This episode worsened the rift between Whistler and the British art world; Arrangement would be the last painting he would submit for the Academy's approval.
The sensibilities of a Victorian era viewing audience would not accept what was apparently a portrait being exhibited as a mere "arrangement"; thus the explanatory title "Portrait of the Artist's Mother" was appended. It was from this that the work acquired its popular name. After Thomas Carlyle viewed the painting, he agreed to sit for a similar composition, this one being titled Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2. Thus the previous painting became Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 more or less by default.
Whistler would eventually pawn the painting, which was acquired in 1891 by Paris' Musée du Luxembourg. Whistler's works, including this one, had attracted a number of imitators and a number of similarly posed and restricted colour palette paintings soon appeared particularly by American expatriate painters. For Whistler, having one of his painting displayed in a major museum helped attract wealthy patrons. In December 1884, Whistler wrote:
As a proponent of ars gratia artis, Whistler professed to be perplexed and annoyed by the insistence of others upon viewing his work as a "portrait." In his 1890 book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, he writes:
Given this outlook, whatever the level of affection Whistler may have felt for his own mother, one finds an even more divergent use of the image in the Victorian era and later, especially in the United States, as an icon for motherhood, affection for parents, and "family values" in general. For example, in 1934 the U.S. Post office issued a stamp engraved with a stylized image of "Whistler's Mother," accompanied by the slogan "In Memory and In Honor of the Mothers of America."
Later the public's interpretation of the symbolism of the painting went even farther afield, and it appeared in a myriad of commercial advertisements and parodies, such as doctored images of the subject watching a television, sometimes accompanied by slogans such as "Whistler's Mother is Off Her Rocker."
Both the "Whistler's Mother" and "Thomas Carlyle" were engraved by the English engraver Richard Josey.