Whistler's Mother

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Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1
ArtistJames McNeill Whistler
Year1871 (1871)
MediumOil on canvas
SubjectAnna McNeill Whistler
Dimensions144.3 cm × 162.4 cm (56.81 in × 63.94 in)
LocationMusée d'Orsay, Paris

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, best known under its colloquial name Whistler's Mother or Portrait of Artist's Mother,[1][2] 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),[3] displayed in a frame of Whistler's own design. It is held by the Musée d'Orsay in Paris,[2] 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[3][4][5][6] and a Victorian Mona Lisa.[3][7][8]


Anna Whistler circa 1850s

Anna McNeill Whistler posed for the painting while living in London with her son at 96 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.[9][10]

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. Whistler originally envisioned painting the model standing up. However, his mother was too uncomfortable to pose standing for an extended period.[11]

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.[citation needed]

The sensibilities of a Victorian era viewing audience would not accept what was a portrait 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,[citation needed] Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2 (Thomas Carlyle), 1872-73
1934 U.S. postage stamp
Mothers' Memorial, Ashland, Pennsylvania

Whistler eventually pawned the painting, acquired in 1891 by Paris's Musée du Luxembourg. Whistler's works, including this one, had attracted several imitators. 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:[12]

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 to care about the identity of the portrait?

Both Whistler's Mother and Thomas Carlyle were engraved by the English engraver Richard Josey.[13] 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.[14]

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

In summing up the painting's influence, art historian 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.[15]

Exhibitions in America[edit]

Whistler's Mother has been exhibited several times in the United States, notably at the Century of Progress world's fair in Chicago in 1933–34. It was shown at the Atlanta Art Association in the fall of 1962,[16] the National Gallery of Art in 1994, and the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2004.[17] It was exhibited at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1983 in an exhibition called: A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting 1760- 1910.

And 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.[18] The painting was exhibited at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, from March 27 to June 22, 2015,[19] 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.[20] From 10 June to 29 October, 2023, it is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.[21]

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.[citation needed]

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 Donald Duck shorts Early to Bed (1941) & Donald's Diary (1954), The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Babette's Feast (1986),[22] Bean (1997), I Am Legend (2007), and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (2013).

English rock musician John Lennon used a self-portrait modeled after the painting on the cover of his 1975 compilation album Shaved Fish.[citation needed]

It has been mentioned in television episodes of The Simpsons ("Rosebud",[23][24] "The Trouble with Trillions",[25][26] and "The Burns and the Bees"[citation needed]).

The painting is mentioned in Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita.[27]

The painting is mentioned in part six of Don Delillo's novel Underworld.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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."[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Fred Armisen's character Karl Cowperthwaite frequently mentions the painting in season 4 of the TV show Last Man on Earth.[citation needed]

Cole Porter’s Anything Goes lists the painting in the song "You're the Top".

Actor Hurd Hatfield toured internationally several times with the play Son of Whistler's Mother by playwright Maggie Williams.[28]

The movie Sneakers (1992) features two characters code-named Whistler and Mother, played by David Strathairn and Dan Aykroyd, respectively.[29]

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. It 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 used the term color to refer to orchestration or harmony, critics have observed "shades" of a particular sound quality in his music.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Veldhorst, Natascha (1 January 2018). Van Gogh and Music: A Symphony in Blue and Yellow. Yale University Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-300-22833-5. Retrieved 8 July 2022.
  2. ^ a b Gelt, Jessica (19 November 2014). "Pasadena to get 'Whistler's Mother' in Norton Simon-Musée d'Orsay swap". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 8 July 2022.
  3. ^ a b c Rajvanshi, Khyati (26 June 2022). "Behind the Art: Why James Abbott McNeill Whistler's 'Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1' became a symbol of motherhood". The Indian Express. Retrieved 8 July 2022.
  4. ^ MacDonald, Margaret (2003). Whistler's Mother: An American Icon. Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries. p. cover. ISBN 978-0-85331-856-9.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Takac, Balasz (14 October 2018). "How Whistler's Mother Became an American Icon". Widewalls. Retrieved 8 July 2022.
  7. ^ "Special Issue: 500 Best Galleries Worldwide". Modern Painters. London: Louise Blouin Media. 7: 26. 2015. ISSN 0953-6698.
  8. ^ Puchko, Kristy (14 March 2018). "14 Things You Might Not Know About Whistler's Mother". Mental Floss. Retrieved 8 July 2022.
  9. ^ 95-96 Cheyne Walk by Patrick Baty
  10. ^ Chelsea News and General Advertiser, Friday 24 July 1925 - https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000973/19250724/064/0005
  11. ^ brandon (12 January 2012). "Whistler's Mother by James McNeill Whistler Facts & History". Totally History. Retrieved 22 September 2023.
  12. ^ Whistler, James McNeill (1967). The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Dover Publications. ISBN 9780486218755. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
  13. ^ University of Glasgow, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings
  14. ^ Whistler's Mother statue, Roadside America
  15. ^ Margaret F. MacDonald, ed., Whistler's Mother: An American Icon, Lund Humphries, Burlington, Vt., 2003, p.121, ISBN 0-85331-856-5
  16. ^ Airplane crash at Orly Field by Randy Golden in About North Georgia. In the fall of 1962, the Louvre, as a gesture of goodwill to the people of Atlanta, sent Whistler's Mother to Atlanta to be exhibited at the Atlanta Art Association museum on Peachtree Street. It was Frank Zollner, John F. Kennedy and Leonardo's Mona Lisa: Art as the Continuation of Politics
  17. ^ 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
  18. ^ 'Whistler's Mother' on display at de Young Museum. ABC. KGO-TV. May 5, 2010. Retrieved February 22, 2022; Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay. de Young museum. 2010. Retrieved February 21, 2022.
  19. ^ Norton Simon Museum and Musée d’Orsay Announce an Exchange of Masterpieces
  20. ^ Whistler’s Mother: An American Icon Returns to Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago
  21. ^ "The Artist's Mother: Whistler & Philadelphia". Retrieved 3 July 2023.
  22. ^ Curry, Thomas (October 2012). "Babette's Feast (1986)". Journal of Religion & Film. 16 (2).
  23. ^ ""The Simpsons" Rosebud (TV episode 1993) – IMDb". IMDb. Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  24. ^ "[1F01] Rosebud". Archived from the original on 10 July 1997. Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  25. ^ ""The Simpsons" The Trouble with Trillions (TV episode 1998) IMDb". IMDb. Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  26. ^ "5F14". Archived from the original on 30 November 2001. Retrieved 9 January 2012.
  27. ^ Shapiro, Gavriel; Shapiro, Professor of Comparative and Russian Literature Gavriel (2 June 2009). The Sublime Artist's Studio: Nabokov and Painting. Northwestern University Press. ISBN 978-0-8101-2559-9.
  28. ^ Hurt Hatfild (1918-98)
  29. ^ Sneakers
  30. ^ Weintraub, Stanley. 2001. Whistler: A Biography (New York: Da Capo Press). ISBN 978-0-306-80971-2, p. 351

Further reading[edit]

  • Sutherland, Daniel E. and Toutziari, Georgia (2018). Whistler's Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300229684.
  • Walden, Sarah (2003). Whistler and His Mother: An Unexpected Relationship: Secrets of an American Masterpiece. London: Gibson Square; Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 1903933285.

External links[edit]