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.

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

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

The 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.

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.

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.

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.

Whistler was not a textbook Impressionist: his prime concern was not with the effects of color and 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.

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.

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

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.