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Although an American by nationality, Whistler divided his career between London and Paris. He enrolled in Charles Gleyre's studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1856 and went into partnership two years later with Alphonse Legros and Fantin-Latour to ensure a better circulation of his works. Fantin-Latour put him in the centre of his painting Homage to Delacroix, alongside Manet and Baudelaire, proclaiming his place in the avant-garde of the Paris art world.

Whistler was also close to Courbet who briefly considered him "his pupil".

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, also called Portrait of the Artist's Mother is a reminder, if only through its double title, of the stylisation to which Whistler soon submitted the realistic aesthetic of his early years. The portrait's psychological acuity is powerfully conveyed by the deliberately pared down composition. The work, in its linear austerity and chromatic rigour dominated by neutral tones, was a continuation of Whistler's experimentation with prints, to which View of the Thames hanging on the wall is an allusion.

Dropping all pretence at anecdote, Whistler soon gave nothing but musical subtitles to his paintings, insisting on the musical notion of harmony rather than that of subject matter. The painting, bought by the French state in 1891, is now one of the most famous works by an American artist outside the United States.

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