“Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1”
aka “Whistler’s Mother”
James McNeill Whistler, 1871, American
Considered the most famous work of art by an American artist outside of the United States (it resides in Paris, France), this painting is vicariously described as an American icon and a Victorian Mona Lisa. With it, Whistler both honored and memorialized his mother far beyond its original creation and intent!
Honoring Mothers in History
As with many of our modern day holidays, celebrations of mothers and motherhood have roots which can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Festivals were held in honor of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. I prefer to consider the roots of the modern precedent for Mother’s Day as seen in the early European Christian festival known as “Mothering Sunday.” Typically the 4th Sunday in Lent, the faithful would return to their “mother church” for a special service. This tradition became more secular with children presenting their earthly mothers with flowers etc. In the 1930s and 40s, this eventually merged with the American Mother’s Day (history.com).
Honoring Mothers in America
The American incarnation of Mother’s Day was created by Anna Jarvis at a special memorial service for her late mother in 1907. Following her own mother’s death in 1905, she conceived the day as a way to honor the sacrifices all mothers make for their children. By 1912, virtually every state was observing the day by 1912; in 1914 it became an official U.S. holiday. Today, a holiday honoring motherhood is observed in different forms throughout the world. While dates and celebrations vary, the holiday traditionally involves presenting moms with flowers, cards and other gifts. (Interestingly, Jarvis would later denounce the holiday’s commercialization and spent the latter part of her life trying to remove it from the calendar.) (history.com).
Whistler Honors His Mother
Whistler considered his own mother, Anna McNeill Whistler, as the perfect subject for his study in value and rectangular shapes – Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1 – and gave the painting that title. However, it is best known under its colloquial name, recognizing its subject, Whistler’s Mother.
The Title: is NOT “My Mother“
Whistler titled the painting as he intended: “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” (He later added “No. 1” to the title to differentiate it from another later work with the same title, adding “No 2”). A firm believer in “art for art’s sake”–he felt it did not need to be identified as anything more. He was both perplexed and annoyed by the insistence of viewers to label it as a “portrait.” In his 1890 book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, he wrote “Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” That is what it is. To me, it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public do to care about the identity of the portrait?” I have to agree with him. However, we simply know it today as “Whistler’s Mother,” – a much more identifiable and memorable title than “Arrangement in Grey and Black. No. 1!”
Having been purchased by France in 1891, the painting is at home in the Impressionist galleries in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Surprise 1: The Size
Upon seeing this oil painting in person, I was met with several surprises. I was first taken back by its impressive size. I was not expecting to be met with a painting nearly 5 feet wide and 5 feet high (5’4″ wide x 4’9″ high; 56.81″ x 63.94″). In fact, Whistler’s mother is almost life size.
Surprise 2: The Detail
My biggest surprise came as I got closer to the painting. I was face to face with the exquisite detail of the Japanese-style, tiny white flowers on the window drapery occupying the left 1/3 of the painting. This detail easily disappears in most photos. In fact, I originally thought the tiny white flowers were spots where paint had chipped off the canvas! Wow! Was I wrong!
Another detail easily missed in even large photographs is the precision in and on her hands, perfectly placed at eye-level, in the near-center of the painting, making it a natural focal point when viewing it in person. Anna’s gold wedding ring was painted in harmony with the gilded gold frame. Her lace-cuffed hands clutch a delicate handkerchief.
The painting, in person, is exquisite in detail and brush stroke, something that is not easily apparent in viewing it in a pictorial replication of it which appears, as titled, an arrangement in grey and black!
Surprise 3: The Frame
I was also surprised at the frame; its impressive width and color as it encircles the painting. I could not find details on its width, but image it proportionately in a 5′ wide picture and do the math!
The frame was created by Whistler especially for the painting. And as noted above, it was painted in a color to harmonize with his mother’s gold wedding ring.
A Tribute to All Mothers
Since the Victorian era, Whistler’s image has been used as an icon for motherhood and family values in general, especially in America.
In Honor of Mothers: A Postage Stamp
On Mother’s Day, 1934, the U.S. Post Office issued a stamp with the slogan “In memory and in honor of the mothers of America,” engraved with portrait detail from the painting.
A Mother is Holy: A Statue
In 1938 during the Great Depression, an 8′ high statue was erected of her in Tennessee. Based on the painting, it was erected as a tribute to mothers by the Ashland Boys’ Association, Ashland, Tennessee. “A mother is the holiest thing alive.”
The Painting as Pop Culture
Thinking of this painting as “pop culture” had not occurred to me until I read a quote by Martha Tedeschi in Whistler’s Mother: An American Icon, which seems to wrap up the complexity of its popularity. “Whistler’s Mother, along with Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch’s The Scream, have achieved something that most paintings–regardless of their art historical importance, beauty or monetary value–have not. They communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. These few works have successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture.” (Whistler’s Mother: An American Icon, Margaret F. MacDonald, ed. p 21. 2003)
The Real “Whistler’s Mother”
A photo of Anna McNeill Whistler taken c. 1850’s reveals the Realism with which Whistler portrayed his mother.
A true Victorian, she 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. Despite her concerns, 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 though so fascinating. God answered my prayers for his welfare by leading me here.” (books.google.com)
I am intrigued at the diverse styles that Whistler employed in his paintings. “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1” is the one we probably think of first and most often. However, his work at the Smithsonian Museums, Washington D.C., those with the Japanese influence, and his “arrangements” in other colors such as pink and grey, etc. are breathtaking.
Read more on the myriad and variety of works by and the legacy of Whistler on my blog post 4th of July = Fireworks. . . or not??? including works at the Smithsonian.