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James Abbott McNeill Whistler: Whistler's Mother

Posted by Susan Benford

At the age of 21, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) left his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts for Paris, where he studied painting with Charles Gleyre (1806-1874), and befriended famous painters including Claude Monet and Gustave Courbet.  

james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-man-with-pipeThe influence of Courbet is readily apparent by 1859, when Whistler painted Man with a Pipe - its dense, coarse brushstrokes and harsh realism evoke this French painter.

Man with a Pipe, ca. 1859.  Oil on canvas, 16 1/4" x 13".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Whistler moved to London in 1859, where he befriended members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  He was to spend the remainder of his life shuttling between London and Paris, never to again live in the U.S.

By 1863, Whistler had jettisoned French Realism for Aestheticism, joining fellow painters rebelling against "bourgeois" conventions about painting.  This is seen in his Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, which was accepted into the infamous Salon des Refuses of 1863, an exhibition of works rejected by the traditional Salon.  

In it, the model Joanna Hiffernan is attired in a full length white dress and placed against a nearly all-white curtain.  Although Symphony in White No. 1 hung not far from Manet's Luncheon on the Grass, it was Whistler's painting that garnered more attention at the exhibition.

Whistler was not a textbook Impressionist: his prime concern was not with the effects of color James-Abbott-McNeill-Whistler-Symphony-White-1and light but with composition of patterns.  To him, what mattered in painting was not the subject per se but the way it was portrayed in form and color.

Nowhere is that more pronounced than in Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, nicknamed Whistler's Mother

Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, 1861-61.  Oil on canvas, 84 1/2" by 42 1/2".  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

As the title insists, Portrait is first and foremost about pattern and shape and tone.  

The pallete is reminiscent of black and white photography, with only a touch of blush on the cheek of the sitter, Anna Mathilda Whistler.  The Japanese-designed curtain nods to Whistler's fascination with Japonisme; the geometry of the composition hints at Mondrian.

Although the most recognized of all Whistler paintings, Whistler's Mother only became famous in America in the 1930s.  Alfred Barr, then the director of the Museum of American Art, was lent this now iconic work for a New York exhibition that was ultimately seen by 50,000 people.  Barr secured a loan extension so that the beloved work could tour the U. S. for 18 months.  

During such economically challenging times, Portrait of the Artist's Mother became a symbol of Protestant fortitude, resilience and reserve.  Indeed, the postal service featured the painting in a commemorative Mother's Day stamp "in memory and in honor of the mothers of America".

But recent research from the Musee d'Orsay suggests that Anna Mathilda Whistler was far from an ideal mother: she maintained a fierce, autocratic control over James (or Jemie, as she called him), dominating both his private and personal life.  In addition to reigning over his household in the 1870s, she ended his long-term relationship with Joanna Hiffernan, star of his White Girl paintings.

James-Abbott-McNeill-Whistler-Arrangement-in-Gray-and-Black

Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871.  Oil on canvas, approximately 57" x 64".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Considering her meddling, overbearing personality, Portrait of the Artist's Mother has hints of psychological revenge: Anna Whistler is timelessly portrayed as a lifeless, stoic woman.  Although Whistler stated that form and color trumped narrative, that's not necessarily the case in Arrangement in Grey and Back: Portrait of the Artist's Mother.

This work, as well as other Whistler paintings, prints and lithographs, are on view at Whistler's Mother: Grey, Black and White at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, until September 27, 2015.

Also on the East Coast, don't miss seeing MoMA's exhibition of all 60 Jacob Lawrence paintings called, "The Great Migration", and the newly-reopened Whitney with our 10 famous paintings at the new Whitney.

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Famous Painters Blogroll

Anguissola, Three Sisters Playing Chess and Phillip II of Spain

Beckmann, Blind Man's Buff

Beckmann, Departure; Self-Portrait in Tuxedo; Sinking of Titanic

Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri

BonheurPlowing in the Nivernais

Bonheur, The Horse Fair

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights

Botticelli, Primavera

Caravaggio, Fashion and Art History

CaravaggioConversion of St. Paul

Caravaggio, Young, Sick Bacchus and Basket of Fruit

Caravaggio, Cardsharps and Fortune Teller

Caravaggio, St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy

Caravaggio, Taking of Christ (Kiss of Judas)

Caravaggio Paintings at the Villa Borghese

Cave Paintings

Cezanne, Bathers 

Cezanne, Card Players

Cezanne, Madame Cezanne Paintings

Cezanne, Most Famous Paintings

Cezanne, Red Dress series

Copley, Paul Revere

David, Death of Marat 

David, Death of Socrates

David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps

de Kooning, Retrospective at MoMA (Part I)

de Kooning,Excavation and Painting, 1948 

de KooningWoman I

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People  

Diebenkorn, The Ocean Park Series

Duncanson, Robert Seldon.  Art History Welcomes Duncanson 

Durer, The Four Apostles

El Greco, Burial of Count Orgaz

El Greco, View of Toledo

FontanaPortrait of a Noblewoman

Frankenthaler, Color Field Painting and Mountains and Sea

Gainsborough, The Blue Boy

Gentileschi, Artemisia.  Judith Beheading Holofernes

Gentileschi, Artemisia.  Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting 

Ghent Altarpiece.  GiorgioneThree Philosophers 

Goya, Duchess of Alba

Goya, Family of Charles IV

Goya, Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta

Goya, The Third of May 1808 

Goya, Duchess of Alba; Saturn Devouring his Son; Two Old Men; Half-Submerged Dog; Black Paintings

Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece

Hals, Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard

Hals, The Laughing Cavalier

Hals, Regents of St. Elizabeth's Hospital

Hopper, Nighthawks

Ingres, Grande Odalisque and Portrait of Madame Moissetier

Isenheim Altarpiece

Kahlo, Renowned Frida Kahlo Paintings.  

Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting and David Garrick.  

Klimt, The Kiss and Adele Bloch-Bauer

Leonardo, Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery, London 

Leonardo, La Bella Principessa 

Leonardo, New Mona Lisa

Leonardo, Benois Madonna and Madonna Litta 

Leonardo, Savior of the World(Salvator Mundi) 

Leonardo, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne

Leyster, Famous Female Painters

20 Louvre Paintings not to Miss 

ManetA Bar at the Folies-Bergere

Manet, Luncheon in the Studio

Manet, The Old Musician

Manet, Street Singer

MantegnaDead Christ

Matisse Paintings, In Search of True Painting

Matisse, The DanceThe Music

Matisse, The Cone Collection

Matisse, The Red Studio

Matisse, The Yellow Dress

Michelangelo, Crucifixion with the Madonna

Michelangelo, Famous Paintings

Michelangelo, La Pieta with Two Angels (latest attribution?)

Michelangelo, St. John the Baptist Bearing Witness

Modersohn-Becker, Famous Female Painters

Monet, Waterlilies

Morisot, Famous Paintings

MorisotMore Famous Paintings

Munch, The Scream

O'Keeffe, Jack in the Pulpit

Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror

Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust

Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein

Picasso, Las Meninas

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ

Poussin, Assumption of the Virgin

Raphael, Sistine Madonna

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer 

Rembrandt, Night Watch

Rembrandt paintings at Frick Show

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait at an Early AgeJeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, The Jewish Bride

Rembrandt, The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild

Rubens, Venus and Adonis

Sanchez Cotan, Spanish Still-life

Sargent, El Jaleo

Sargent, Madame X

Sargent, Smoke of Ambergris

Steen, The Christening Feast 

Steen paintings at Frick Show

Tanner, The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor

Titian, Assumption of the Virgin

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne

Titian, Man with a Glove

Titian, Nymph and Shepherd, Allegory of Prudence, Jacopa Strada, St. Jerome, Slaying of Marysas

Titian, Rape of Europa

Turner, J. M. W, The Fighting Temeraire

Uccello, Battle of San Romano

van der Weyden, St. Luke Drawing the Virgin

van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait

van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb

van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece

van Gogh, The Potato Eaters

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van Gogh, Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh paintings up to 1889

Vincent van Gogh paintings, 1888-1890

Velazquez, Juan de Pareja

Velazquez, Pope Innocent X

Velazquez, Overview of Famous Paintings

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Vermeer, Saint Praxedis

Vermeer, The Kitchen Maid

Vermeer, The Allegory of Painting

VermeerGirl with the Red Hat

Warhol, Campbell's Soup Cans

Warhol, Marilyn Diptych and Gold Marilyn 

Warhol, Mao 

Anders Zorn

Famous Paintings by Art Museums - ebooks

Learn about famous paintings to see in these art museums:

Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY). One of those intimate, small art museums with a stellar collectionFamous Paintings at Albright-Knox. 

Art Institute of Chicago: Plan to see these famous paintings at the Art Institute -- and download an ebook about them.

Louvre Museum, (Paris): one of the largest art museums in the world! Know which Louvre paintings not to miss in this sortable ebook. 

Mauritshuis Museum: explore works by renowned Dutch painters

Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City): download the ebook, Famous-Paintings-Metropolitan-Museum, to learn its must-see masterpieces. Or read the blog post, "Famous Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum". 

National Gallery (London): with 2300 famous paintings alone in its European painting section, discover highlights to see!  Art Paintings to See at the National Gallery.

Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam): 10 famous paintings not to miss

Washington, D.C. Art Museums: Explore forty famous paintings in Washington, DC in this article.

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Female Artists

While we long for the time when artists are artists and genderless, that time isn't yet here.

These are a few of the female artists who've left lasting legacies in the history of painting:

Sofonisba AnguissolaThree Sisters Playing ChessPhillip II of Spain

Rosa Bonheur.  Plowing in the Nivernais.  Horse Fair.

Lavinia Fontana. Portrait of a Noblewoman.

Helen Frankenthaler. Color Field Painting and Mountains and Sea. 

Artemisia Gentileschi.  Judith Beheading Holofernes.  Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting.

Frida Kahlo.  Frida and Diego Rivera.  The Two Fridas.  The Love Embrace of the Universe. 

Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting.  David Garrick.

Judith Leyster.  Self-Portrait.  The Proposition. 

Paula Modersohn-Becker. Self-Portrait with an Amber Necklace. Still Life with Goldfish. 

Berthe Morisot.  Refuge in Normandy.  The Cradle. 

Georgia O'Keeffe. Jack in the Pulpit Series. 

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Survey of Female Artists

Survey of Renaissance Paintings.

Art History Beyond Europe

A few forays into art outside Europe:

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African Mask of Idia

Coatlique 

Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Great Wave

The Terracotta Warriors