The Thinking 

Whistler’s Unfortunate Mother

May 13, 2012



AS YOU take stock this Mother’s Day, be glad you were not Whistler’s mother. This famous painting of Anna McNeill Whistler by her brilliant son, James, came to symbolize motherhood in the early twentieth century, especially when the U.S. Post Office placed it on a stamp in 1934. But, really, would you want to be remembered by your son this way?

That the painting was seen as a paean to motherhood is perplexing. Though it is interesting and beautiful as a composition and an exploration of color and space, showing the artist’s preoccupation with Oriental art and its emotional detachment, the person portrayed is imprisoned. She is austere to the point of joylessness. While there is a lovely fragility to her face, she stares into emptiness, fixated on something unsettling. One sees obsession and steely determination. Good heavens, what was she like when you were a baby?!

For Whistler the painter, the point was to portray his mother as an interesting object. Subject matter was secondary to form. The painting was thus titled Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, a shockingly abstract title at the time it was exhibited by the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1872. The subtitle, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, was appended, supposedly to ease concerns that it was callous to view one’s mother as part of a still life.

Whistler wrote: “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?” [emphasis added] He didn’t paint it to stand for motherhood or even his own mother. He wanted to show that even a mother was a thing.

He eventually pawned it.

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