Whistler’s Mother

This painting hangs in the Museé d’Orsay in Paris. After Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, it may be the world’s most famous portrait of a woman.

The title of James McNeill Whistler’s painting of 1871 is actually Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1. The story goes that when one of his models fell ill and could not pose, Whistler asked his mother (photo left) to stand in – although being frail she sat. It is the first painting to use what Whistler described as an “arrangement” of colours, a controversial statement in its time since convention demanded that colour serve a figurative purpose. In the sombre pose, expression and colouring, reminiscent of a 16th century Dutch portrait, Whistler succeeded in conveying something of his mother’s staunchly Protestant character.

Interestingly, Whistler’s own etching of Black Lion Wharf (1859) hangs on the wall in the background. The etching is part of a series known as the “Thames Set”. Whistler depicts the dilapidated warehouses, rickety chimneys, uneven walls, lumpy roofs, little paned windows, stencilled business signs and balconies with great care, using different kinds of cross-hatching to suggest different materials: tiles, timber, iron and brick. Wanting to imitate the way the eye sees, Whistler concentrated on certain areas of the scene and left others (such as the two boatmen to the right) out of focus.

Whistler was admired for his etchings, lithographs and pastels. The etchings include portraits of family, mistresses, and street scenes in London, Amsterdam and Venice. In his book The British School of Etching (1921) Martin Hardie wrote, “There are some who set him beside Rembrandt, perhaps above Rembrandt, as the greatest master of all time. Personally, I prefer to regard them as the Jupiter and Venus, largest and brightest among the planets in the etcher’s heaven.” And Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval in their biography James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth (1994) came to a similar view: “As one of the greatest etchers of his age he spawned a multitude of followers. It is difficult to imagine an etcher anywhere who is not familiar with his work, or unaffected by it.”

The painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 anticipated Whistler’s series of Nocturnes, in which colours meld to create an impression of a scene that is more atmospheric than literal. The approach strongly influenced the French composer Claude Debussy who, in 1894, described his own Three Nocturnes for orchestra (1899) in an introductory note to the score:

“The title Nocturnes is to be interpreted here in a general and, more particularly, in a decorative sense. Therefore, it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests. ‘Nuages’ renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white. ‘Fêtes’ gives us the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light… ‘Sirènes’ depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.”

Whistler’s mother, justly proud of her son’s achievements, cannot have known how famous she would become.

Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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