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Whistler’s Mother of 1871, known by the original title of Arrangement in Gray and Black, Portrait No. 1, is one of the most famous portraits of the nineteenth century. And it’s kept in one of the museums that I never stop visiting every time I go back to Paris, the Musée d’Orsay

The subject of the work

In the foreground the protagonist of the work: the mother of the American artist James McNeill Whistler. Very thoughtful, the woman sits in a stiff pose, her hands clutching a white lace handkerchief. Her gray hair is pulled up and her black clothes wrap around her body. 

The general feeling that is perceived is that of great austerity. This is due to the combination of the soft colors of the background and the striking black of the clothes. But also because of the vertical and horizontal lines that define the floor, the tensa, the chair and the frames. Yet, despite this sense of severity, there is also a sense of empathy and fragility of the woman. The artist’s mother, Anna McNeill Whistler (1804–1881), was widowed in 1849. She left America in 1863 to escape the civil war and moved to London to live with her son. She has a history that makes her a strong and at the same time tried woman. And also for this reason, this work has become the symbol of the austere but sweet and human woman.

The Art for Art Movement

A few years after moving to London, Whistler begins to use musical terms in the titles of his paintings. For example, he uses symphony, nocturnal or, as in this work, arrangement. This expressed for him the conviction that painting was more interested in formal qualities – lines, shapes, colors – than in the subject. Other artists of the time shared this point of view, and so Whistler became the most influential spokesperson for the doctrine that would become famous as “art for art”. He becomes one of the protagonists because of his personal magnetism and his way of speaking. 

The series of portraits Arrangement in gray and black

Arrangement in gray and black, n. 1 was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1872. The selection committee initially rejected it. But Sir William Boxall, director of the National Gallery in London and a friend of Whistler, uses his influence to get him accepted. 

In general, the portrait is not received with enthusiasm. But he also has admirers, most notably the writer Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle thinks this work has enormous originality. And so he decides to commission Whistler to paint a portrait of him. It is titled as in a series Arrangement in Gray and Black, Portrait No. 2 and was executed between 1872 and 1873. In 1891, it was purchased by the city of Glasgow in Scotland, becoming the first Whistler painting to be acquired from a public collection. This becomes a turning point in Whistler’s career. The same year, in fact, the portrait of Whistler’s mother was bought by the French state, which had meanwhile made him a knight in the Legion of Honor in 1889.

Whistler’s mother. Details of the work

The woman in profile is Whistler’s mother

Whistler represented her mother in profile. This form of representation was widely used by Renaissance artists. And it had remained widespread only in some specific types of representation such as coins and medals. But it was rarely used in conventional portrait painting in the nineteenth century. This detail of portraying the mother in profile, however, establishes the formal rigor of the image. Furthermore, the use of white lace meeting the black dress of the profile is reminiscent of the work of Frans Hals, a seventeenth-century Dutch painter, whom Whistler loved very much.

The chair and the footstool

This is the only object of the scene that does not have a strong geometry made up of vertical, horizontal lines and edges. The story goes that the portrait of Whistler’s Mother was originally supposed to be standing. However, due to the woman’s seniority and a recent illness, the mother could not stand for hours. So to relieve fatigue Whistler represents her sitting and facilitates her modeling work, which already required a lot of patience. 

Furthermore, the artist also inserts a footrest into the representation that gives a sense of familiarity to the image. The footrest in fact serves to relieve the fatigue of the mother, but metaphorically it also reduces the heaviness of the black block created with the woman’s clothes. Through an X-ray analysis of the work it was discovered that the height of the footrest and many other details of the work were initially different. In fact, before finding a definitive version, the artist seems to have tried various positions for the arms and knees of the mother. 

Hands and handkerchief

Representing hands in a portrait has never been an easy job for any artist. A common practice has therefore always been to occupy the hands of the subject with an object. Having a glove, a weapon or, as in this case, a handkerchief tightened is a trick used by painters to be able to represent only a portion of the hand and engage the protagonist and the viewer. and in this work, besides the woman’s face, the hand is the most detailed portion of the work. 

The work in the work

On the wall of the house behind the Whistler woman represents a framed print. It is one of his own works: Black Lion Wharf of 1859. The engraving was published in 1871 as part of a series entitled Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames. And it helps in its own way to establish Whistler’s reputation as an engraver. The artist lived, in fact, near the Thames and the river was one of his favorite subjects.

The curtain on the left

The curtain on the left of Whistler’s Mother is decorated with a floral pattern, reminiscent of the Japanese art that Whistler loved very much. Japan had remained isolated from other countries in the world until 1853, so starting from the end of isolation in the mid-nineteenth century it began to have a strong influence on Western culture and taste. Many European artists begin to admire its culture and artistic tradition and some of these, like Whistler, also become collectors of Japanese art and include small details in their works. 

Color Contrasts in Whistler’s Mother

Whistler was particularly attentive to the tonal values ​​of the colors of his works. And here it achieves a perfect balance of light and dark. He liked to create subtle and discreet color effects. Also, thanks to the color, it created a flat surface of the image, rather than a three-dimensional depth. This kind of attention and technique contributed greatly to creating the conditions from which abstract art emerged. And that’s why Whistler’s art was also radical.

Whistler’s Mother’s Making Technique

Whistler was a self-critical perfectionist and always worked very slowly. He often left paintings incomplete or even destroyed them when they failed to meet his exacting standards. 

Other times, he scraped off the paint or rubbed it on the canvas so he could start over. Surprisingly, all this laborious process is not visible to the naked eye on his finished works. Whistler often applied a very thin paint but its use varied greatly. And lightly brushed passages often coexist with richer, creamier touches. In the portrait of his mother, the face together with the hand receive a more detailed treatment than anything else. While the lace headdress and handkerchief are painted with slightly drier brushstrokes than the rest of the image.

The use of terms such as symphony in works

One of Whistler’s most famous works is the portrait of a girl in white against a white curtain. This work helped establish Whistler’s name when shown at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. It depicts his landlady of the time, Joanna Hiffernan. Whistler originally titled the portrait The White Girl, but it was thanks to a French journalist that the term symphony was introduced. In fact, referring to this work, he defined it as a “symphony of white”. And Whistler, without missing the opportunity, adopted the idea, adding the words to the title and using them for other works as well.

James McNeill Whistler. The story of the artist

Whistler led the life of a true cosmopolitan. He was born in America but also lives in Russia as a boy and spends most of his career in London and Paris. He even spends a period in Italy, in Venice. 

He has become one of the best-known figures in London’s literary and artistic circles, partly because of his talent, but also because of his intelligence and love of controversy. Many critics have often thought that his work was suggestive but seemed unfinished. So much so that in 1877 Whistler sues one of them, and not just any one but the most famous English critic in the history of art: John Ruskin. Whistler wins the lawsuit, but legal fees led him to bankruptcy in 1879. However, he recovers his reputation as well. 

At the end of his life, he was very honored. In addition to his paintings, mainly portraits and landscapes, he produced numerous engravings which made him one of the most interesting artists of the nineteenth century in Europe.

Cover: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Whistler’s Mother (Arrangement in Gray and Black, Portrait No. 1), 1871, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

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