What's the deal with Whistler and his Mother?

What do you think of when I mention the artist, James Whistler?

Most people think of his famous painting, "Whistler's Mother."

Arrangement in Black and Grey No. 1: The Artist's Mother.

"Arrangement in Black and Grey No. 1: The Artist's Mother."
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1871, oil on canvas.

It's a curiously composed portrait — almost a still life, really. We usually associate a "still life" with a table of fruit or flowers. This painting is oddly impersonal, like a bowl of fruit.

We see her profile as she looks off to the side. She is dressed somberly. Her face is not the focal point. The most intimate element included may be the small footstool she rests her feet on for comport during the long process of posing. Anna Whistler is almost life-size in the actual painting, which is almost 7 feet wide and over 6 feet high.

A sliver of a framed piece of art at the right complements the art in the center of the painting. Both framed pieces distract us from the woman in the chair. The art pieces on the wall are two etchings by Whistler that he recreated in this painting.

"Whistler's Mother" isn't the name that James Abbott McNeill Whistler gave the painting when he created it. He named it "Arrangement in Black and White, No. 1." He was not painting a portrait of his Mother per se. He was painting a composition with areas with slight variations of color.

Whistler was enamored with what I'll call his neutral colors: grays, blacks, whites, browns, and some blues. He worked to convey the subtle value changes (differences in light and dark) among the colors in his composition.

This was a few years before the sensational and esoteric trial in which Whistler sued John Ruskin for criticizing Whistler's art. Ruskin was heralded as an art critic, commentator, and recognized authority on good taste. Whistler thought Ruskin knew nothing of art. Yet the critique of Whistler's "Nocturne in Black and Gold — The Falling Rocket" was so blistering that Whistler responded with a charge of libel.

First, A Bit of Background on James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Whistler was an unexpected, complex, witty, irascible, prickly, worldly, artistic genius. Chicago art collectors, critics and reviewers, dubbed him "audacious," and noted that "his fiery personality went over well in the rough and tumble city."

He was an American artist, born in Lowell, MA, in 1834. The Whistler House Museum of Art, commemorates his early years and his family's life in the industrial community in Massachusetts near Boston. Whistler was not charmed with his birthplace and sometimes said he was born elsewhere. But when asked why such a distinguished, worldly artist would be born in Lowell, he responded, "because I wanted to be near to my Mother." As he demonstrated many times, he had a sharp wit and certainly could be considered a wise-guy. He had a close relationship with his mother all her life. In fact, when she died, he took her maiden name, McNeill, and dropped "Abbott" from his name.

George Washington Whistler, Jame's father was an engineer with deep family experience in the early settlement of the US. George's experience included building railroads and steam locomotives. Due to his notoriety in this field he was hired by Tsar Nicolas I to build the railroad line from St. Petersburg to Moscow; Russia's first major railroad. Young James Whistler moved with his family to St. Petersburg in June 1842. While there, James studied drawing at the Imperial Academy of Sciences.

Unfortunately, the elder Whistler caught cholera and died in 1849, two-years before the railroad was complete. This naturally threw the family into disarray, mourning, and an inability to generate an income. Anna Whistler moved back to the US with her children, including James at age 15. Upon their return, his mother sought the political connections needed to secure a place for James at West Point.

He was kicked out of West Point for his failure in chemistry, among other infractions. He hadn't looked forward to a military career, probably much to his mother's worry. He was interested in art. He didn't miss the tedium of the routine of the academy, yet he continued to appreciate the discipline that had been instilled in him. The rigor, personal courage, and resiliency, all served him well in his art career.

Following his departure from West Point, he spent time in Paris and London. He was painting and creating lithographs. By the mid-1860s he was showing the influences of the Japanese wood block prints in his work. (See my blog post on the influence of Japanese wood block prints on American and French artists.)

He was simplifying his compositions by including:

"... flat decorative surfaces, subtle tonal harmonies, and allusive, rather than literal, subjects. Taking a cue from a critic who had referred to his early portrait of his mistress, The White Girl (1862; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), as a “symphony in white,” Whistler began to envision and entitle his works with the abstract language of music calling them symphonies, compositions, harmonies, nocturnes, arrangements, and so forth."

​Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: James McNeill Whistler"


The titles of his paintings began to include the words: symphonies, arrangements, and nocturnes, thus creating a connection between viewing a piece of art as its passages and overall impression, rather than picking out, for example, a beautiful woman, or a dramatic vista within the frame. Or rather than focusing on the story or symbolism of the painting.

His compositions included segues or etudes of color, as in music, to move from one movement to another. This way of looking at art was foreign, off-putting, and counterintuitive to critics and many collectors of the day.

His "Nocturnes" became a series of paintings focused on the enigmatic changes in color and value. The series featured night scenes that were dimly lit. He relinquished the details of the scene to embrace the murky neutrals.

Whistler's interest in values of neutrals and his understanding of this aspect of composition is said to have been a tipping point for other artists and toward the beginning of Modern Art.

Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City from 1929-1943, described "Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1 (Whistler's Mother) as a precursor to modern abstraction art. In 1943, Barr wrote that "without Anna, the painting is 'a composition of rectangles […] not very different from the abstract 'Composition in White, Black, and Red' painted by [Piet] Mondrian.'”

Piet Mondrian, Composition in White Red and BlackPiet Mondrian, "Composition in White, Red and Black." 1936.
From the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

Mondrian painted his "Composition..." more than 60 years after Whistler painted his mother.

One of my favorite Nocturne paintings by Whistler is a watercolor of the Grand Canal in Amsterdam. Notice the very hazy people in the foreground, and the moody reflections in the canal from the lights on the buildings.

“Nocturne: Grand Canal Amsterdam,” Watercolor, 1883. James WhistlerNocturne: Grand Canal Amsterdam,” Watercolor, 1883.
James Whistler. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Another favorite of mine, as well as in art and museum circles, is "Nocturne in Black and Gold — The Falling Rocket." This is recognized as his most infamous painting too.

In this small oil painting (about 15" wide by 23" high) a celebratory, sparkly night sky is depicted. The painting is of the fireworks display at Cremore Gardens. This area in London was a popular place to meet friends along a bridge over the Thames River. The evening fireworks display added to the conviviality of the outing.

Whistler painted fireworks in a cascade of small dots of gold paint.

(Many other artists painted night scenes, too. Another firework painting was featured in one of my recent blog posts, "Clouds from Both Sides Now," the "Fête pour la Paix Générale donnée à Paris le 18 Brumaire. Pont et Place de la Concorde." by Francesco Piranesi and François Jean Sable.)

"Nocturne in Black and Gold-- The Falling Rocket." Whistler
"Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket," James Whistler, 1875.
From the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art.

Again, notice the ghostly people in the foreground. I'm not sure if they were depicted as ethereally as we see them, when he painted them. Or, if some of the paint has faded over the years. But, either way, I'm sure the intent was to render them with little detail or mass.

The enormous spray of fireworks and rockets fills the night sky and at least three-fourths of the painting. I love this painting. It carries me back to fireworks I have seen.

Yet, somehow the magnitude and drama of this painting exemplifies sort of the supernova of fireworks displays for me. Viewing this painting, I have that awe and amazement of a child watching fireworks. Even this small online reproduction of the painting does that for me; I hope to one day see the original at the Detroit Institute of Art.

This painting is the one that received the vile review by John Ruskin. Unfortunately for Whistler, Ruskin was not a fan of the "Nocturne" series. He missed the point.

In a published review in 1878, John Ruskin stated that the gallery administrator "ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture“. He continued, "I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

I can feel the pain of that comment. And, Whistler did too. He not only felt aggrieved, but he felt slandered. Whistler filed a libel suit against Ruskin. It became a European and American buzz in the art world.

The trial lasted only two days. During the trial, some of the basic questions of art itself were argued: What is art? What is art for? Who decides what is art? Who decides when a piece of art is finished?

Whistler won but it was a hollow, devastating victory. He was anticipating a significant payday in damages and had postponed paying creditors in anticipation of a positive outcome. The jury decided in his favor, but awarded him only a single farthing (about a penny) in damages. He had been skating on the brink of insolvency before the trial, and afterwards fell into bankruptcy. He had has to sell his home and all of his belongings, including the paintings he held in his own collection. He moved to Venice to re-create himself. And that is an entirely different story for another time. 🙂

Below is a caricature of Whistler featuring his monocle, walking stick, cigarette, and proudly displaying his unusual lock of white hair, on his slender fashionable profile.

Illustration of Whistler

This illustration of Whistler was published in Vanity Fair, 1878, the same year as the libel trial. It accompanied an article by an anonymous author defending Whistler. The writer said that the trial accused Whistler of not finishing his art, "but, 'finish' is a word that has been abused to convey the more apparent absence of a conventional amount of labour which he rejects… and replaces by his assurance that he has done the work when he has done with it." This discussion of when is a piece of art finished reminds me of Michelangelo who was also offended when people asked why he left his art unfinished. He said that the art is finished when I say it is finished, and Whistler agreed with that philosophy.

Thinking of mothers as we approach Mother's Day — His portrait of his mother, as you can see, is not so much a portrait of his mother, but a whole chapter on the birthing of modern abstract art.

Anna Matilda McNeil Whistler
Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler, the mother of James.
Circa 1850. Wikipedia. CC license. Unknown US photographer.

Now, a quote from James McNeill Whistler:

“Art should be independent of all clap-trap — should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear,”

James Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.


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