The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 026
La Mère Gérard (1)

La Mère Gérard (1)

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1858-1859
Collection: Colby College Museum of Art
Accession Number: 2013.295
Medium: oil
Support: millboard
Size: 30.5 x 22.2 cm (12 x 8 3/4")
Signature: 'Whistler'
Inscription: none


La Mère Gérard (1) was probably started in 1858. 1

1858: According to Whistler's biographers, the Pennells, Whistler painted Mère Gérard on a country outing, 'in the course of the afternoon, the portrait was a success, and he promised it to her, but first took it back to the studio to finish. Then he fell ill and was sent to England.' 2 It could have been started in the autumn of 1858, before he left Paris on 6 November to convalesce in London with Deborah Delano Haden (1825-1908) and Francis Seymour Haden, Sr (1818-1910) and family. 3

La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art
La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art

1859: On 12 January 1859 Whistler returned to Paris. 4 The Pennells said that the portrait was completed after Whistler's return to Paris, and reported Whistler as saying that this was the first original picture he painted in Paris. 5 It may be the portrait that Whistler described in a letter to Deborah Haden after returning to Paris: 'I have very nearly finished a painting of a head from life, which is likely to be the best thing I have yet done.' 6

Thomas Armstrong (1832-1911) said that he saw it on exhibition in the studio of the artist, François Bonvin (1817-1887), 189 rue St-Jacques, Paris, in May 1859, and that he thought it was 'the earliest exhibited picture by Whistler, and I think it was also the earliest original work in oil.' 7


La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art
La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art

La Mère Gérard (2), Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
La Mère Gérard (2), Washington County Museum of Fine Arts



Only one title is known:

Because there are two portraits of this sitter it was necessary to give them consecutive numbers, this being 'La Mère Gérard (1)' and the other La Mère Gérard (2) y027.


La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art
La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art

A half-length portrait in vertical format, showing an elderly woman, seated facing the viewer. She wears a black jacket or shawl over a dark grey skirt. Her white muslin bonnet has a ruched trim, and is tied under her chin. Her left hand, resting on her lap, holds a yellow pansy. The background is a warm black.


Mère Gérard (fl. 1810-1860).

La Mère Gérard (2), Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
La Mère Gérard (2), Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

Whistler made several other portraits of her: an oil, La Mère Gérard (2) y027, and two etchings, La Mère Gérard [24]. and La Mère Gérard, Stooping [25].

Other studies of elderly women by Whistler include drawings such as Standing figure of an old woman m0275, etchings including La Rétameuse [26], La Vieille aux Loques [27] and a second portrait of the same sitter, La Mère Gérard (2) y027.



La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art
La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art

The figure is lit from above, and her face is strongly modelled with bold brushstrokes. The bonnet was originally slightly higher at left. The paint is applied fairly thickly, with impasto on the highlights of skin and on the bonnet, with its trailing ribbons. A rich black outline separates her from the dark background.

Way & Dennis suggested 'the influence of a study of Tintoret', and recalled that Whistler had jokingly described the portrait of Mère Gérard as an 'old master.' 11

Conservation History

It was cleaned by Daniel de Carlo, Los Angeles, in 1968.


Broad gilded wood frame with rows of reeding each side of a flat panel, the painting mounted in a broad gold flat. A label on the verso reads 'James Whistler / 47 Hans Place / Chelsea / No 2. Oil painting / "La Mère Gérard".', with a note by Joseph Pennell (1860-1926) dated '2.5.1922', saying that the label is in Whistler's hand, which it is not.



According to the Pennells, Whistler had intended to give the portrait to the sitter, but then he considered it too good for her and gave her a copy (see La Mère Gérard (2) y027); she 'saw the difference and was furious'. 12

It was given by Whistler to his friend, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. 13 It may have been in 1878 that Whistler asked Swinburne, 'do you think I might on Monday send for the Mère Gérard?'; it is possible that he thought of presenting it as a work exhibited at the Royal Academy, during the Whistler v. Ruskin trial of 1878, and indeed it was listed in the curriculum vitae prepared by Whistler's attorney for the trial. 14

In 1888 Whistler regretfully repudiated his friendship with Swinburne and later regretted his generosity: in 1892 he told the art dealer Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932), 'The Mère Gérard, was the other instance of folly I cited - the present I made to Swinburne.' 15 In 1900 he expressed to the Pennells his desire to repossess the portrait: 'I must have [it] back from Swinburne. Time has changed the conditions of the gift, and therefore of course, as will be understood among gentlemen, the gift must be returned.' 16 However, it was not returned.


1859: According to Thomas Armstrong (1832-1911), this portrait was praised by Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) when he saw it in the studio of the artist, François Bonvin (1817-1887), 189 rue St-Jacques, Paris, in May 1859. 17

1861: When it was exhibited by Whistler in London, at the Royal Academy, the portrait received mixed reviews. Several commented on the powerful painterly qualities but disliked the dark palette. The Times described it as 'A small, dark, dirty head' but added that, 'Small as it is, this head shows some of the rarest and truest pictorial gifts.' 18 The Athenaeum praised the painting as 'a fine, powerful-toned, and eminently characteristic study of an old woman's head … This little work, which is badly placed, contains some admirable qualities of real Art of the best executive order.' 19

The Daily Telegraph had stronger reservations, commenting that the painting would be better placed 'over the stove in the studio than to be exhibited at the R.A.,' but was nevertheless 'replete with evidence of genius and study'. The condemnation continued,

'If Mr Whistler would leave off using mud and clay on his palette, and paint cleanly, like a gentleman, we should be happy to bestow any amount of praise on him for he has all the elements of a great artist in his composition. But we must protest against his soiled and miry ways.' 20

The critic for The Saturday Review also remained underwhelmed: 'Mr Whistler has copied an old woman's face in most naturalistic style in his "La Mere Gerard" (272). He shows he could do more, if he chose.' 21 On a similar note, The Sunday Times remarked, 'J. Whistler's "La Mere Gerard" has certain power in it, but in a subject so small one likes to see finish also.' 22

1905: Over forty years later, by the time of the Whistler Memorial exhibition in London, journalist's views had changed. The Daily Telegraph & Courier on 13 March 1905 saw in it the influence of Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn (1617-1681): 'In the first exhibited picture, "La Mère Gérard" there is already consummate art of its kind, and the American artist proves what he can accomplish under the direct influence of Rembrandt.'


Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905


Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present



Journals 1906-Present





1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 26).

2: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 57.

3: Passport, GUL MS Whistler NB10.

4: Ibid.

5: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 57, 73. Pennell 1921C [more], p. 78.

6: [12/30 January 1859], GUW #01913.

7: Lamont 1912 [more], pp. 179, 190.

8: 93rd Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1861 (cat. no. 272).

9: 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. 68).

10: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 26).

11: Way & Dennis 1903 [more], pp. 15, 22–23.

12: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 57, 68.

13: Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, 10-11 June 1892, GUW #09680.

14: [July 1876/July 1878], GUW #09443. See also J. A. Rose, list, [25-26 November 1878], GUW #11914, and Whistler to Rose [November 1878], GUW #08784.

15: 10-11 June 1892, GUW #09680.

16: Quoted in Pennell 1921C [more], p. 80.

17: Lamont 1912 [more], pp. 179, 186, 190.

18: Anon., 'Exhibition of the Royal Academy', The Times, London, 4 May 1861, p. 12.

19: Anon., 'Fine Arts: Royal Academy', The Athenaeum, no. 1752, 25 May 1861, pp. 698-700, at p. 698.

20: Anon., 'R. A. Exhibition, 2nd Notice', The Daily Telegraph, London, 6 May 1861, p. 5, quoted in Goebel 1988 [more], p. 693.

21: Anon., ‘The Royal Academy Exhibition (II)’, The Saturday Review, vol. 19, 25 May 1861, pp. 531-32.

22: Anon., 'Notes on Arts by Artismator: R.A. Exhibition: 4th Notice', Sunday Times, London, 2 June 1861, p. 2.