Several possible titles have been suggested:
The title was controversial from the start. It was frequently mentioned in reviews of the Royal Academy in 1872. For instance, one reviewer wrote:
'Mr. Whistler is a painter of too much power to need artificial distinction through an eccentric title to his pictures. In calling the portrait of his mother (941) "an arrangement in grey and black," he only draws away the attention from the real nature of his strength as a painter, which consists in the subtlety of distinction between hues and tones, as well as from the merit of the picture as a characteristic portrait. The "arrangement" is stiff and ugly enough to repel many who would otherwise recognise him as painter of rare quality, but when this is got over, the picture becomes one on which the eye delights to dwell.' 15
On 22 May 1878, in 'The Red Rag', Whistler himself cited the title of the portrait of his mother as an example of his purpose:
'Art should be independent of all clap-trap - should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works "arrangements" and "harmonies."
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?' 16
'Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother' is the preferred title.
The portrait of an elderly woman seated in profile to left, on a canvas of horizontal format. She is dressed in black, with a white muslin bonnet with lappets falling over her shoulders. Her hands clasp a handkerchief in her lap. She is sitting on a wooden chair, her feet resting on a footstool. Behind her is a pale grey wall with a low black dado, and, at left, a dark grey curtain or robe, embroidered with silver patterns, hangs to the floor. To right of that hangs an etching in a narrow black frame.
According to the Pennells, the studio in Whistler's house at 2 Lindsey Row in Chelsea, London, was a room at the back on the second storey, with grey walls and a black dado and doors. 17
Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881) was born on 27 September 1804 in Wilmington, NC. She became the second wife of Major George Washington Whistler on 3 November 1831. James was her eldest son, born in 1834. She died in January 1881.
She was 66 years old when she posed for her portrait. In a long letter to her sister, Kate Palmer, on 3-4 November 1871, Anna Whistler discussed the painting:
'My portrait you would all like as Debo [Deborah Haden] says it reminds her of Grandmother and Uncle William MacNeill. ... send Margaret this letter to read, tho she must not blush for the vanity of her old chum, in praise of my own likeness! but thankfulness to God is my emotion and it was a Mother's unceasing prayer while being the painter's model for the expression which makes the attractive charm.' 18
A description of the early sittings follows:
'I was not as well then as I am now, but never distress Jemie by complaints, so I stood bravely, two or three days, whenever he was in the mood for studying me his pictures are studies, & I so interested stood as a statue ! but realized it to be too great an effort, so my dear patient Artist who is gently patient as he is never wearying in his perseverance - concluded to paint me sitting perfectly at my ease.' 19
She then described her own and Whistler's attitude to the work:
'Jemie had no nervous fears in painting his Mothers portrait for it was to please himself & not to be paid for in other coin, only at one or two difficult points when I heard him ejaculate "No! I can't get it right! it is impossible to do it as it ought to be done perfectly!" I silently lifted my heart, that it might be as the Net cast down in the Lake at the Lords will, as I observed his trying again, and oh my grateful rejoicing in spirit as suddenly my dear Son would exclaim, "Oh Mother it is mastered, it is beautiful!" and he would kiss me for it!' 20
'Some few of his most intimate friends came, Mr Rose who seems to have given me his own Mothers place since she died, was charmed & came four times, he says when it is Exhibited next Spring he shall go every day to see it. … And now that dear Jemie is at Speke Hall it is there. I will just extract from Mrs Leylands letter to me what her little daughters said in her Surprise. "I think you ought Mr W to write Peace on your Mother's picture for that is what it is!["] and another remarked ["]Isn't it the very way Mrs Whistler sits with her hands folded on her handkerchief! Oh it is exactly like her!" ' 21
She reported further reactions from friends including Emilie Venturi (1821–1893) before the painting was sent to the Royal Academy in 1872:
'Jemie is ... in good spirits about his work. he had some Artistic friends on Easter Tuesday to see my Portrait ... I was up in my Japanese bedroom … & refused not the particular friends & admirers of my Son's work, who begged permission to tell me their impressions of the picture[,] if I were to write all that was said, you'd fear, a proof of the human weakness, had overcome me in my declining years! ...
Madame Venturi ... was here all day … An Artist said to her "it has a holy expression. oh how much sentiment Whistler had put into his Mothers likeness." ' 22
One of the first reviews of Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother in the Academy for 15 May 1872, specifically mentioned the artist's powerful intellectual grasp of the Protestant character.
However, Anna Whistler was upset when an unexpected guest from Philadelphia came to visit, upsetting her orderly habits:
'I should have had the table cleared as soon as Jemie finished, had not a Mrs Hooper come in ... she had written Jemie her wish to see his Mother was increased by her having seen his picture of me at the Academy. I was a little mortified that I was conscious of appearing careless.' 23
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) wrote to Whistler in 1871, 'Such a picture as you have now finished of your Mother must make you happy for life and ought to do good to the times we are living in.' 24
Shortly after her portrait was painted Mrs Whistler had written that it was Whistler's 'favorite work.' 25 Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington (1854 or 1855-d. 1920) remembered Whistler saying, 'Yes - one does like to make one's Mummy just as nice as possible!' 26
His public attitude was quite different. Whistler broke with Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) in 1888 when Swinburne wrote that the portrait was not, as the artist claimed, merely an arrangement of colours and lines and shapes, but possessed qualities that 'appeal to the intelligence and the emotions, to the mind of the spectator. It would be quite useless for Mr. Whistler to protest ... that he never meant to put ... intense pathos of significance and tender depth of expression into the portrait of his own venerable mother. The scandalous fact remains that he has done so.' 27
In 1891 George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) told Whistler 'how great I think your picture of your mother is, a real poem of the highest order, a most serene harmony, the impression of it remains with me like a strain of sweet & solemn music', and Whistler thanked him for 'this flattering & warm expression of sympathy from a confrère so greatly distinguished as yourself.' 28
Recent surveys and comments:
Essays in Whistler's Mother: An American Icon (2003), explored various aspects of the creation, marketing, and after-life of the painting. Georgia Toutziari gave an account of the sitter's life; Margaret MacDonald and Joy Newton discussed the creation and exhibition history of the painting; the travelling exhibition of the painting through the USA was analysed by Kevin Sharp; William Vaughan examined the psychological implications of the portrait, and Martha Tedeschi discussed the development of the portrait's reputation and its establishment as an 'American icon'. 30
The Musée d'Orsay website comments:
'Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, also called Portrait of the Artist's Mother is a reminder, if only through its double title, of the stylisation to which Whistler soon submitted the realistic aesthetic of his early years. The portrait's psychological acuity is powerfully conveyed by the deliberately pared down composition. The work, in its linear austerity and chromatic rigour dominated by neutral tones, was a continuation of Whistler's experimentation with prints, to which View of the Thames hanging on the wall is an allusion.
Dropping all pretence at anecdote, Whistler soon gave nothing but musical subtitles to his paintings, insisting on the musical notion of harmony rather than that of subject matter. The painting, bought by the French state in 1891, is now one of the most famous works by an American artist outside the United States.' 31
Elizabeth Prettejohn analyses the composition and treatment of the portrait perceptively, commenting on its lack of sentimentality:
'Instead of the sentimental, there is something else that comes as a surprise: a play between the reticent signs of old age and the exact justice of the design that we may wish to call beautiful in the Kantian sense. The beauty is that of Modernism, either in the near-abstract simplification of the design, or in the unidealized portrayal of old age. But it is also that of antiquity in the perfect interpenetration of sensuous shape with spiritual meaning.' 32
1: 104th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1872 (cat. no. 941).
4: Ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et lithographie des artistes vivants, 101st exhibition, Salon de la Société des artistes français, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1883 (cat. no. 2441).
7: III. Internationale Kunst-Ausstellung, Königlicher Glaspalast, Munich, 1888 (not in catalogue).
8: 28th Exhibition of Works of Modern Artists, Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, Glasgow, 1889 (not numbered in catalogue).
9: Tentoonstelling van Kunstwerken van Levende Meesters, Amsterdam, 1889 (cat. no. 468).
10: 1st exhibition, Society of Portrait Painters, London, 1891 (cat. no. 224).
12: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 44).
13: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the late James McNeill Whistler, First President of The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, New Gallery, Regent Street, London, 1905 (cat. no. 23) in ordinary and deluxe edition respectively.
15: Unidentified press cutting (Whistler noted that it might have come from the 'Hour or Chronicle'), GUL Whistler PC1, p. 9.
30: MacDonald 2003b [more], including Georgia Toutziari, 'Anna Matilda Whistler: A Life', pp.13-27; Margaret F. MacDonald, 'The Painting of Whistler's Mother', pp. 29-63; Margaret F. MacDonald and Joy Newton, 'The selling of Whistler's Mother', pp. 65-79; Kevin Sharp, 'Pleasant Dreams: Whistler's Mother on tour in America, 1932-4', pp. 81-99; William Vaughan, 'A chance meeting of Whistler and Freud? Artists and their mothers in modern times', pp. 101-119; Martha Tedeschi, ' The face that launched a thousand images: Whistler's Mother and popular culture', pp. 121-41.
Last updated: 8th June 2021 by Margaret