Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Mother's Day

     Whistler's mother was aware of her son's love of art. But she still wanted the young man to go to military school, so as to have a career, and not shame the family name. 
    He forgave her, as sons invariably do.
    James McNeill Whistler's "Arrangement in Gray & Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother)" is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago for another month—the 1871 painting goes back to the Musee d'Orsay on June 11.
"Napoleon's Mother" by Antonio Canova
      Anna McNeill Whistler had moved to London in 1863, joining her son's household and forcing his mistress to find new lodging. He did not hold that against her either, however, painting this portrait: at first she was to be depicted standing, according to the placard. But the old woman grew tired and was allowed to sit and Whistler, sensing an opportunity, and influenced by Antonio Cadova's sculpture "Napoleon's Mother," went with it.
      Having just written about why the Mona Lisa is famous, it would be worthwhile to consider why Whistler's Mother, as it is commonly called, is also iconic.  It was immediately popular, which helps: Swinburne praised it. Thomas Carlyle commissioned Whistler to paint his own portrait after seeing it. 
Always a francophile, Whistler quipped, after the nation bought painting in 1891, that now he truly was a son of France now that the nation "owned his mother."
     In popular culture, she became motherhood personified. Or perhaps, rather, idealized. Maybe because the woman seems so placid, so pleasant, calm, silent, in repose, not glaring angrily at the viewer, but looking placidly away. Who we would all like our mothers to be, at least at times. The artist, who considered this one of his best paintings, agreed that his mother looks swell here. "Yes," he once said. "One does like to make one's mummy just as nice as possible." 

1 comment:

  1. I can't agree with Whistler that he made "his mummy as nice as possible." Without ever looking closely at the painting, I've always thought of it as a period piece, featuring a not-so-attractive old lady, seated rather uncomfortably, and looking away from the painter and subsequent viewers, probably a bit unhappy to be stared perpetuity. And the painting on the wall -- what does that tell us, if anything? Art majors, can you remedy my ignorance?



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