whistler, james

Whistler, James (Abbott) McNeill

(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.


Anna McNeill Whistler posed for the painting while living in London with her son. Several unverifiable stories surround the making of the painting itself; one is that Anna Whistler acted as a replacement for another model who couldn't make the appointment. Another is that Whistler originally envisioned painting the model standing up, but that his mother was too uncomfortable to pose standing for an extended period.

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:

"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."

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:

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?

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.

Whistler's Mother in popular culture

  • The painting was featured prominently in the 1997 film Bean :The Ultimate Disaster Movie , when Mr. Bean, played by Rowan Atkinson was sent to the United States from England to oversee the installation of the painting in a California art museum. After sneezing on it, Bean wipes the painting with his handkerchief, but accidentally smears the mother's face with blue ink instead. Bean then attempted to clean the ink off using paint thinner, which washed off the ink, as well as the face. Bean ends up replacing the painting with a poster, while taking the original home with him and placing it over his mantelpiece, with a cartoon head drawn over the blank space where the mother's head had been. The version of the painting shown in this film is actually considerably smaller than the real painting.
  • "Whistler's Mother" is also the title of an episode from the first season of the FOX television series Arrested Development.
  • In a photoshoot of Cycle 5 of America's Next Top Model, contestant Jayla Rubinelli was instructed to pose in a modernized version of the painting as an ad for Olay Quench lotion.
  • The painting can be seen in the background during one scene in Billy Wilder's film The Fortune Cookie.
  • In the movie The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear one of the characters, Dr Albert S. Meinheimer, can only be told apart from his double by the birthmark in the shape of Whistler's Mother on his right buttock.
  • The painting is referenced in the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder, in the short story "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen, in the Cole Porter song, "You're the Top" from his 1934 musical Anything Goes, and (as "Mama Whister") in the Neil Diamond 1970 song Done Too Soon.
  • A 1967 episode of Lost in Space entitled "A Day at the Zoo" features, as one of zookeeper Farnum B's exhibits, a woman he calls "Mrs. Whistler." She is costumed like the subject of this painting, although unlike the painting she sits facing to the right from the viewer's perspective. Taken with comments Farnum makes, the viewer is expected to assume that he has kidnapped the actual subject of the painting, although this is later revealed as untrue.
  • Volume 7 of the 1991 VHS release of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is titled "Whistler's Moose."

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