Whistler's Mother

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Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1
Whistlers Mother high res.jpg
Artist James McNeill Whistler
Year 1871 (1871)
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 144.3 cm × 162.4 cm (56.8 in × 63.9 in)
Location Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, famous under its colloquial name Whistler's Mother, is a painting in oils on canvas created by the American-born painter James McNeill Whistler in 1871. The painting is 56.81 by 63.94 inches (144.3 cm × 162.4 cm), displayed in a frame of Whistler's own design in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, having been bought by the French state in 1891. It is now one of the most famous works by an American artist outside the United States. It has been variously described as an American icon[1][2] and a Victorian Mona Lisa.[3]


Anna Whistler circa 1850s.

Anna McNeill Whistler posed for the painting while living in London with her son at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.[4]

Several unverifiable stories surround the making of the painting itself; one is that Anna Whistler acted as a replacement for another model who couldn't make the appointment. It is also said that Whistler originally envisioned painting the model standing up, but that his mother was too uncomfortable to pose standing for an extended period.

Another story associated with the painting is that Whistler called upon his beautiful young neighbour, Helena Amelia Lindgren (1855-1931), of number 5, Lindsey Row, to sit in Anna's place when she grew too tired. Well into her old age, Helena would still talk of secretly modelling for Whistler, who was especially enamoured of her hands. According to a surviving letter of 1935 (now in the possession of Helena's great-great-great-grandson, David Charles Manners), Anna had first called on the Lindgrens herself to request that Helena's older sister, Christina, be her stand-in. However, Christina's mother, Eliza Lyle née Warlters, forbade it. Ever a free spirit, Helena therefore secretly offered herself instead and modelled for the portrait without her mother's knowledge.[citation needed]

The work was shown at the 104th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art in London (1872), but first came within a hair's breadth of rejection by the Academy. This episode worsened the rift between Whistler and the British art world; Arrangement would be the last painting he would submit for the Academy's approval.

The sensibilities of a Victorian era viewing audience would not accept what was apparently a portrait being exhibited as a mere "arrangement"; thus the explanatory title "Portrait of the Artist's Mother" was appended. It was from this that the work acquired its popular name. After Thomas Carlyle viewed the painting, he agreed to sit for a similar composition, this one being titled Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2. Thus the previous painting became Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 more or less by default.

~ Whistler's Mother ~
Issue of 1934

Whistler would eventually pawn the painting, which was acquired in 1891 by Paris' Musée du Luxembourg. Whistler's works, including this one, had attracted a number of imitators and a number of similarly posed and restricted colour palette paintings soon appeared particularly by American expatriate painters. For Whistler, having one of his paintings displayed in a major museum helped attract wealthy patrons. In December 1884, Whistler wrote:

"Just think — to go and look at one's own picture hanging on the walls of Luxembourg — remembering how it had been treated in England — to be met everywhere with deference and respect...and to know that all this is ... a tremendous slap in the face to the Academy and the rest! Really it is like a dream."

As a proponent of ars gratia artis, Whistler professed to be perplexed and annoyed by the insistence of others upon viewing his work as a "portrait." In his 1890 book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, he writes:

Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an "Arrangement in Grey and Black." Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public do to care about the identity of the portrait?

Given this outlook, whatever the level of affection Whistler may have felt for his own mother, one finds an even more divergent use of the image in the Victorian era and later, especially in the United States, as an icon for motherhood, affection for parents, and "family values" in general. For example, in 1934 the U.S. Post office issued a stamp engraved with a stylized image of "Whistler's Mother," accompanied by the slogan "In Memory and In Honor of the Mothers of America." Both the "Whistler's Mother" and "Thomas Carlyle" were engraved by the English engraver Richard Josey.[5] In the town of Ashland, Pennsylvania, an 8-ft statue based on the painting was erected in 1938 as a tribute to mothers.[6]

Later the public's interpretation of the symbolism of the painting went even farther afield, and it appeared in a myriad of commercial advertisements and parodies, such as doctored images of the subject watching a television, sometimes accompanied by slogans such as "Whistler's Mother is Off Her Rocker."

In summing up the painting's impact author Martha Tedeschi has stated:

"Whistler's Mother, Wood's American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch's The Scream have all achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. These few works have successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture."[7]

Appearances in American museums[edit]

Whistler's Mother occasionally appears in the United States. It appeared at the Atlanta Art Association in the fall of 1962,[8] the National Gallery of Art in 1994 and the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2004.[citation needed] It appeared at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from June to September 2006.[citation needed] Between May 22 and September 6, 2010, it was at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.[citation needed] The painting will be exhibited at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, USA, March 27-June 22, 2015. http://www.nortonsimon.org/assets/Uploads/Norton-Simon-and-Orsay-ExchangePress-Release.pdf.

In popular culture[edit]

Fight for Her, World War I recruitment poster from Canada, urging men to enlist with the Irish Canadian Rangers and to fight for the women in their own lives. It appeals to notions of motherhood and family values that were popular at the time, and often attributed to this painting.

The painting has been featured or mentioned in numerous works of fiction and within pop culture, including films such as The Fortune Cookie (1966), Babette's Feast (1986),[9] and "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" (2013) and television episodes of The Simpsons ("Rosebud",[10][11] "The Trouble with Trillions"[12][13] and "The Burns and The Bees"[citation needed]) and the movie I Am Legend. The painting is also mentioned in part six of Don Delillo's novel Underworld.

The painting is featured as a major plot element in the 1997 Rowan Atkinson film Bean. Within the story, the painting is being purchased by an American (played by Burt Reynolds) to return the work of art to the United States. However, Bean ruins the painting by using paint thinner after sneezing on it and then drawing a cartoon face on it and surreptitiously replaces the painting with a poster from the museum shop.[14]

The film The_Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) features the shape of the painting as a birthmark on Dr. Albert Meinheimer (played by Richard Griffiths), to identify him after he's been replaced by Quentin Hapsburg (played by Robert Goulet) with an "evil double" named Earl Hacker (also Griffiths). It provides comic relief when main character Frank Drebin (played by Leslie Nielsen), mistakenly believes that the birthmark is a fake and makes several outrageous attempts, including using a metal grinder, to remove it from Meinheimer's body.

It was also used in America's Next Top Model, Cycle 5 as one of the inspirations for the photoshoots for Olay's Quench body lotion, which is the modern interpretation of the classical artworks. Contestant Jayla Rubinelli posed as Whistler's mother in the said photoshoot by Barry Lategan. The photo gave Rubinelli a runner-up position in the said episode of the cycle.

In music[edit]

Whistler and particularly this painting had a profound effect on Claude Debussy, a contemporary French composer. In 1894, he wrote to violinist Eugène Ysaÿe describing his Nocturnes as "an experiment in the different combinations that can be obtained from one color – what a study in grey would be in painting." Although there is speculation on what he meant by musical 'color', be it orchestration or harmonic, one can observe 'shades' of a particular sound quality in his music.[15]


  1. ^ MacDonald, Margaret (2003). Whistler's Mother: an American icon. Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries. p. cover. ISBN 978-0-85331-856-9. 
  2. ^ Hall, Dennis; Hall, Susan (2006). American Icons [Three Volumes]: An Encyclopedia of the People, Places, and Things that Have Shaped Our Culture. San Diego, California: Harcourt. p. 755. ISBN 978-0-85331-856-9. 
  3. ^ "Modern painters" 7. London: Fine Art Journals. 1994. p. 26. ISSN 0953-6698. 
  4. ^ 95-96 Cheyne Walk by Patrick Baty
  5. ^ University of Glasgow, James McNeil Whistler: The Etchings
  6. ^ Whistler's Mother statue
  7. ^ Margaret F. MacDonald, ed., Whistler's Mother: An American Icon, Lund Humphries, Burlington, Vt., 2003, p.121, ISBN 0-85331-856-5
  8. ^ Airplane crash at Orly Field by Randy Golden in About North Georgia. In the fall of 1962, the Louvre, as a gesture of good will to the people of Atlanta, sent Whistler's Mother to Atlanta to be exhibited at the Atlanta Art Association museum on Peachtree Street. Frank Zollner, John F. Kennedy and Leonardo's Mona Lisa: Art as the Continuation of Politics
  9. ^ "Babette's Feast (1986)". 
  10. ^ ""The Simpsons" Rosebud (TV episode 1993) – IMDb". Retrieved 9 January 2012. 
  11. ^ "[1F01] Rosebud". Retrieved 9 January 2012. 
  12. ^ ""The Simpsons" The Trouble with Trillions (TV episode 1998) IMDb". Retrieved 9 January 2012. 
  13. ^ "5F14". Retrieved 9 January 2012. 
  14. ^ "Bean (1997)". Retrieved 9 January 2012. 
  15. ^ Weintraub, Stanley. 2001. Whistler: a biography (New York: Da Capo Press). ISBN 978-0-306-80971-2. p. 351

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]