Arrangement in grey and black No. 1 – James McNeill Whistler

Firstly…Happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere.  This is your day so I hope that you are kicking back and letting the kids and your respective other half make you appalling cups of tea and fold towels badly, which you admire them for trying, but the OCD side of you is screaming internally that they are not folded just how you like them.  Obviously I am stereotyping, am I am sure that you are all having a lovely day, and thoughts go to those whose mothers or mother figures are no longer with us.

You might know this painting by another name…Yes, it’s “Whistler’s Mother”.  Painted in 1871, it is oil on canvas and has a muted pallet which makes the picture so intriguing.

This painting has been elevated to an American icon that stands for motherhood, affection towards parents and family values.  It is also this painting which lifted McNeill from just an artist, to a celebrated painter who had mastered the technique of aestheticism.

Whistler started working on this painting when his mother was 67.  Initially he wanted her standing, but due to poor health and comfort of the pose, he had her sat, in a truly victorian style profile shot, reminiscent of the silhouette pictures that the victorians loved to create.  There are some stories that he had his next door neighbour come and model for the portrait when his mother got too tired to sit for the sessions as she was not in the best health.

The victorians were a funny bunch, and didn’t like the painting being called an arrangement, therefore a subsidiary sign was put with the painting advising it was the artists mother, hence it receiving its nickname “Whistler’s Mother”.  On viewing this painting, Thomas Carlyle agreed to sit for a similar painting titled the imaginative “Arrangement in gray and black no. 2”.

In 1891 Whistler pawned this painting, and it was eventually acquired by the  Paris’ Musée du Luxembourg.  To see his painting in this museum made Whistler’s dreams come true, but also realise that the painting had been subject to the overbearing views of the public, in as much as their thoughts on the naming convention, when he really wanted the picture to be seen as an arrangement, as he felt that the identity of the model was unimportant to the painting itself.  How little he realised that this painting would go on to be so iconic.

Since that time, the painting has been made into stamps, many have copied the style and sculptors have made statues to commemorate this picture.  It has been mentioned in endless literature and songs, and the image has been used in advertising slogans….but why?

Yes, I appreciate that this was seen as a touching picture of the artist’s mother (despite the fact that he maintained it didn’t matter who it was of really), and while it is a well executed picture of a woman sat in a chair, for my taste it is a bit dower.

The pallet is heavily muted to greys and blacks, with only the facial tone and hands in fleshy colours. For me this gives and almost repressed feel to the painting. The woman looks almost forlorn almost in mourning, this is assisted by the classic Victorian wear; her all in black, but then due to the arrangement, there is nothing to bring the scene up in visual impact from the colour perspective, unless you look really closely. On the curtains you can see the palest of pink, hinted in to the floral decoration of the curtains, which assists in highlighting the colour of the mothers face. You will also see a wedding ring on her hand, a small glimpse of gold which repeats around the framed picture in the background. There is also something about the composition of the woman, her legs hidden by her long black dress, but you can see that her feet are resting on a foot stall, as you really inspect the piece, you may come to realise that she is actually on a constructed platform, which means Whistler was below his mother and there is an upward perspective… He was looking up to his mother.

This painting is heralded as one of the masterpieces of aestheticism, the soft and delicate brush stroke which blend the piece so well, which on close looking makes it feel hazy. The delicate use of colour, and the constructed perspective to make the audience draw in to the main focal point, which was his mother.

Despite Whistler’s protests of the subject not mattering, I think he was playing a very clever game with the audience, and indicating that this was a woman of importance to him, even though he didn’t want to name her in the original title. This is what makes this picture so iconic. You didn’t need to know it was a highly personal portrait of his mother to understand that he adored her, simply through the way that he painted her, and that was Whistler’s point, which was sadly missed.

What do you think of Whistler’s mother? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?


7 thoughts on “Arrangement in grey and black No. 1 – James McNeill Whistler

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  1. Crikey! You had me worried about today being Mother’s Day. Didn’t realize until I looked it up just now that this day is different in England than it is here in the States.

    Nice overview of this painting. It usually feels a little creepy to me, probably because of the dark tones making it somber, and all the Victorian stuff to boot!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know, I don’t find it endearing. She’s not even facing us and the black is morbid. And my first reaction was: “Oh no, WidowCranky has chosen again something she doesn’t like!”.

    Liked by 1 person

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