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Behind the Art: Why James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1’ became a symbol of motherhood

The painting 'Whistler's Mother' has become an American icon overtime and is even known as the Victorian Mona Lisa. But why is this painting so iconic?

artist James Abbott McNeill, James Abbott McNeill painting, James Abbott McNeill's Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, Whistler’s Mother, Whistler’s Mother portrait, painting, artwork, indian express newsWhistler’s mother is shown clutching a handkerchief and has a very calm and serene expression as she stares at nothing. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 or better known as ‘Whistler’s Mother’ was painted by the American-born artist James Abbott McNeill in 1871. The painting was done using oil on canvas and is displayed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, having been bought by the French state in 1891. It is now said to be worth over $36 million. Measuring in at 56.8 inches by 64.2 inches, Whistler’s Mother is almost life-size within the frame. The painting has become an American icon overtime and is even known as the Victorian Mona Lisa. But why is this painting so iconic and how did it become a symbol of motherhood?

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The story behind the sitter

It is common knowledge that the sitter in the painting is the artist’s mother Anna Matilda McNeill. After her husband’s death she began signing her letters to James “your afflicted widowed mother” and always wore black for the rest of her life. In 1864, Anna decided to live with her son in London and it is then when she became his housekeeper, agent, personal assistant and religious mentor. It is said the artist heavily relied on his mother and wanted to paint her for a while. One day when his 15-year-old model, Maggie Grahame, daughter of a Member of Parliament, failed to appear for her portrait, Whistler asked his mother to pose for it. His mother first stood like a statue for hours at end but due to her age, it was difficult for her to maintain that pose and she wanted to sit at ease. Thus emerged a painting that would become a symbol of motherhood across the globe. In the painting, his mother is shown sitting on a chair, facing left, with her feet resting on a stool. The background shows beautiful patterned drapery using the colour blue and black. The artist’s liking towards Japanese art can be seen as he aims to seek harmony and simplicity in his surroundings.

Symbol of motherhood

Whistler’s mother is shown clutching a handkerchief and has a very calm and serene expression as she stares at nothing. According to Whistler, the subject of the painting should be regarded merely as pretext for different styles in aestheticism. He once said: “To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?”

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Despite how Whistler wanted the world to see this painting, everyone took a liking to his mother and what she represented — motherhood and holiness. When it toured the USA in the 1930s, she became an epitome of motherhood. A civic group in Pennsylvania, US even erected a monumental statue of his mother with the words, “A mother is the holiest thing alive” inscribed. The US Post Office prepared a 3-cent stamp in memory and honor of American mothers, bearing the slogan — “In memory and in honor of the mothers of America.” In 1915, the painting was co-opted by the Irish Canadian Rangers 199th Overseas Battalion to encourage volunteers to enlist for World War I. The poster read, “Fight for her” and appealed to notions of motherhood and family values that were popular at the time. It also instilled the feeling of protection, instigating the youth to fight to protect their holy mother who is sitting at home and has already lost so much in life.

In the painting, his mother is shown sitting on a chair, facing left, with her feet resting on a stool. The background shows beautiful patterned drapery using the colour blue and black. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The painting style

The painting style is not only influenced by the Japanese art culture but also is quite monochromatic. Anna’s black mourning outfit dominates the colour scheme and is the main part of the composition of the painting. This left a lot of empty space in the lower right section of the canvas. Some experts say that Whistler chose to paint a seated pose of his mother because of his inspiration from the statue of Agrippina in the Capitoline Museums in Rome and Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte’s mother at Chatsworth. The title of the painting Arrangement in Grey and Black certainly defines the style of the painting. Large portions of the canvas is dominated by greys and black and he uses lighter colours to highlight his mother’s fragile body.

In 1915, the painting was co-opted by the Irish Canadian Rangers 199th Overseas Battalion to encourage volunteers to enlist for World War I. The poster read, “Fight for her”. (Photo: flickr.com)

A timeless icon

Not many people know this, but when Whistler submitted this painting to the Royal Academy, the members of the Academy could not wrap their heads around the painting’s perceived severity. They ended up rejecting it at first, but reconsidered and accepted it later thanks to Whistler’s ally William Bozall, who was the director of the National Gallery at the time. Although the Academy decided to hang the painting on their walls, they chose a very poor location in order to hide it from the public, and this hurt the sentiments of Whistler. He vowed to never submit his work again to the Academy. In 1891, the prestigious Parisian museum Musée du Luxembourg purchased the work, which helped improve his reputation overnight.

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Over the years, this painting has been used in many pop culture references, such as several episodes of The Simpsons; Don Delillo’s novel Underworld; episode of the Underdog cartoon series; and much more. The message of motherhood is something that is understood and respected by all cultures around the world. This painting has a strong message about family values. The artist captured the love and dedication of a mother who will do anything to help and support her child. The artwork is and always will be a cultural American icon.

Next Up in Behind the Art: Why is The Starry Night, 1889, by Vincent van Gogh so famous?

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First published on: 26-06-2022 at 10:20:53 am
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