Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1871) by James Abbott McNeil WhistlerMusée d’Orsay, Paris
Painted in 1871 and actually titled Arrangement in Grey and Black, No 1 this iconic painting is best known by another name. It features a woman sitting in profile, looking calm and serene while staring at apparently nothing. So, what makes it so special and how might you better know it? Check out the clues below for some help.
The painting is perhaps the most important US artwork to reside outside of the country and was the first piece of American art to be purchased by the French state. Today, it can be seen in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
It is a masterpiece of modulated tones of single colors, giving the painting a soft focus, and an almost fuzzy appearance. It's as if it has been blown onto the canvas like breath on glass.
That’s not to say there isn't great technical ability on display. Just look at the brushwork around the cuffed hands, clutching a lace handkerchief.
Or the fine lacework of the subject’s bonnet.
The hints of Japanese-style floral patterns on the curtains draw the eye to the left hand side of the painting.
The artist’s signature emblem – a butterfly – hovers in the top-left of the frame.
The woman in the picture is the artist’s mother, with whom he lived in London from 1864 to 1875. It represented a very accurate likeness, as friends would regularly comment. ‘Yes, one does like to make one’s mummy just as nice as possible,’ the artist would concede some years later.
Unusually for a portrait, especially one this famous, the painting gives away very little about its subject. Although in real life the artist's mother was described by a sister-in-law as “so unshakeable that sometimes I could shake her", the painting reveals little of her character.
She sits patiently, almost blankly, staring at the wall or window. Perhaps this is the reason for the fascination with the painting. This is how the son sees the mother, not as a person in her own right but simply there waiting to be of service. The idealized vision of every mother by every son.
So, have you guessed the painting’s more common name?
It is, of course, Whistler’s Mother by James Abbott McNeil Whistler. He was one of five children of Anna Whistler, but one of only two that survived into adulthood. His mother, Anna, was 67 when the painting was completed.
Whistler had been destined for a career as a soldier but dropped out of West Point military academy and moved to Paris where he became a contemporary of Manet, Monet, Degas and others. He later moved to London where his mother joined him.