Whistler's Mother

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Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1
Whistlers Mother high res.jpg
ArtistJames McNeill Whistler
Year1871 (1871)
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions1,443 mm × 1,624 mm (56.81 in × 63.94 in)

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, best known 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 subject of the painting is Whistler's mother, Anna McNeill Whistler. The painting is 56.81 by 63.94 inches (1,443 mm × 1,624 mm), displayed in a frame of Whistler's own design. It is held by the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, having been bought by the French state in 1891. It is 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 relate to the painting of the work; one is that Anna Whistler acted as a replacement for another model who could not 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.

The work was shown at the 104th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art in London (1872), after coming within a hair's breadth of rejection by the Academy. This episode worsened the rift between Whistler and the British art world; Arrangement was the last painting he submitted for the Academy's approval (although his etching of Old Putney Bridge was exhibited there in 1879). Vol. VIII of The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their work from its foundation in 1769 to 1904 (by Algernon Graves, F.S.A., London 1906) lists the 1872 exhibit as no. 941, "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's mother", and gives Whistler's address as The White House, Chelsea Embankment.

The sensibilities of a Victorian era viewing audience would not accept what was apparently a portrait being exhibited as an "arrangement", hence the addition of the explanatory title Portrait of the Painter's mother. From this the work acquired its enduring nickname of simply Whistler's Mother. After Thomas Carlyle viewed the painting, he agreed to sit for a similar composition, this one titled Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2. Thus the previous painting became, by default, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1.

1934 U.S. postage stamp
Mothers' Memorial, Ashland, Pennsylvania

Whistler eventually pawned the painting, which was acquired in 1891 by Paris's Musée du Luxembourg. Whistler's works, including this one, had attracted a number of imitators, and numerous 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:[citation needed]

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 "art for art's sake", 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 wrote:[5]

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?

Both Whistler's Mother and Thomas Carlyle were engraved by the English engraver Richard Josey.[6] The image has been used since the Victorian era as an icon for motherhood, affection for parents, and "family values" in general, especially in the United States. For example, in 1934 the U.S. Post Office Department issued a stamp engraved with the portrait detail from Whistler's Mother, bearing the slogan "In memory and in honor of the mothers of America." In the Borough of Ashland, Pennsylvania, an eight-foot-high statue based on the painting was erected as a tribute to mothers by the Ashland Boys' Association in 1938, during the Great Depression.[7]

The image has been repeatedly appropriated for commercial advertisements and parodies, such as doctored images of the subject watching a television, and sometimes accompanied by captions such as "Whistler's Mother Is Off Her Rocker."

In summing up the painting's influence, 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.[8]

Exhibitions in American museums[edit]

Whistler's Mother has been exhibited several times in the United States. It was shown at the Atlanta Art Association in the fall of 1962,[9] the National Gallery of Art in 1994, and the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2004.[10] It was exhibited at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from June to September 2006.[citation needed] From May 22 to September 6, 2010, it was shown at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.[citation needed] The painting was exhibited at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, from March 27 to June 22, 2015,[11] and then at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago from March 4 to May 21, 2017.[12] It had returned to the Musee d'Orsay as of early August 2019.

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 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. These include films such as Sing and Like It (1934), The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Babette's Feast (1986),[13] Bean (1997), I Am Legend (2007), and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (2013).

It has been mentioned in television episodes of The Simpsons ("Rosebud",[14][15] "The Trouble with Trillions",[16][17] and "The Burns and the Bees"[citation needed]).

The painting is mentioned in part six of Don Delillo's novel Underworld.

In a four-part episode of the Underdog cartoon series (Parts 69-72 in the series) entitled "Whistler's Father", Underdog is assigned to stand guard in a museum to prevent the theft of a valuable painting called Whistler's Father.

The film The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) features the shape of the painting as a birthmark that is used to identify a character after he is replaced with an "evil double."

The painting is central to the plot of the comedy film Bean (1997), in which Mr. Bean accidentally defaces it during its repatriation to the United States and secretly replaces it with a poster.

The painting was featured in America's Next Top Model, Cycle 5 to inspire the photoshoots for Olay's Quench body lotion, in a modern interpretation of the classical artwork.

Fred Armisen's character Karl Cowperthwaite frequently mentions the painting in Season 4 of the TV show Last Man on Earth.

Actor Hurd Hatfield toured internationally several times with the play Son of Whistler's Mother by playwright Maggie Williams.[18]

The movie Sneakers (1992) features two characters code-named Whistler and Mother.[citation needed]

Between 1959 and 2021 the Douglas A-26 Invader serial number 41-39401 was either flown or displayed with the name of Whistler's Mother and featured a reproduction of the painting on the nose.

In music[edit]

Whistler, and particularly this painting, had a profound effect on Claude Debussy, a contemporary French composer. In 1894, Debussy 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." Whether Debussy was using the term color to refer to orchestration or harmony, critics have observed "shades" of a particular sound quality in his music.[19]


  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. ^ "Special Issue: 500 Best Galleries Worldwide". Modern Painters. London: Louise Blouin Media. 7: 26. 2015. ISSN 0953-6698.
  4. ^ 95-96 Cheyne Walk by Patrick Baty
  5. ^ Whistler, James McNeil (1967). The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Dover Publications. ISBN 9780486218755. Retrieved July 9, 2015.
  6. ^ University of Glasgow, James McNeil Whistler: The Etchings
  7. ^ Whistler's Mother statue, Roadside America
  8. ^ Margaret F. MacDonald, ed., Whistler's Mother: An American Icon, Lund Humphries, Burlington, Vt., 2003, p.121, ISBN 0-85331-856-5
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ Symphony in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (“Whistler’s Mother”) Archived 2015-02-15 at the Wayback Machine, Detroit Institute of Arts
  11. ^ Norton Simon Museum and Musée d’Orsay Announce an Exchange of Masterpieces
  12. ^ Whistler’s Mother: An American Icon Returns to Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago
  13. ^ "Babette's Feast (1986)".
  14. ^ ""The Simpsons" Rosebud (TV episode 1993) – IMDb". Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  15. ^ "[1F01] Rosebud". Archived from the original on 10 July 1997. Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  16. ^ ""The Simpsons" The Trouble with Trillions (TV episode 1998) IMDb". Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  17. ^ "5F14". Archived from the original on 30 November 2001. Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  18. ^ Hurt Hatfild (1918-98)
  19. ^ Weintraub, Stanley. 2001. Whistler: A Biography (New York: Da Capo Press). ISBN 978-0-306-80971-2, p. 351

External links[edit]