Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd
It's been a long interlude between visits. The last time Anna Matilda McNeil Whistler - or rather her famous portrait - came to Philadelphia was 142 years ago. The occasion was an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts of the painting by her son, now universally called Whistler's Mother.
A.K.A. Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, the celebrated painting by James McNeil Whistler is back in the City of Brotherly Love. A true icon of American art, Whistler's Mother highlights a special exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, organized by Jennifer Thompson, the museum's curator of European Art. The exhibit will be on view until October 29, 2023.
It is important to note that the official designation of Whistler's Mother, noted above, is actually the anglicized translation of its French title, Arrangement en gris et noir n° 1. That is an important distinction since the French government bought the painting in 1891, ten years after its first sojourn in Philadelphia.
Arrangement en gris et noir was the first acquisition of a painting by an American painter for the Louvre's collection. Initially, it was put on display in the Luxembourg Museum, until Whistler died twelve years later. The galleries of the Louvre were reserved for deceased artists, who were deemed worthy to share the museum walls with Leonardo, Watteau and Gericault.
Thanks to a far-sighted French art critic, Gustave Geffroy (one of the first to appreciate Cezanne, as well), James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) joined the company of the "immortals" of art in the Louvre. And, as we will see, the help of Anna Whistler was of crucial importance for securing the fame and fortune of her son!
Whistler's Mother is now the center of attraction at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But it shares the stage with eight other works of art focusing on the theme of motherhood. Each of the eclectic cast of major artists, Cecilia Beaux, Henry Ossawa Tanner, John Sloan, Dox Thrash, Alice Neel and Sidney Goodman, follows Whistler's lead, but in their own unique way.
All the artists have Philadelphia backgrounds, with the exception of a Venetian engraver, Francesco Novelli (1764-1836) who skillfully copied an etching by Rembrandt of his mother. Novelli's etching is believed to have influenced Whistler when he painted his mother's portrait in 1871.
Arrangement in Grey and Black received indifferent reviews during its exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art (PAFA) in 1881. The museum directors refused to purchase the painting, which, surprisingly, was for sale. Whistler was deeply in debt, following his disastrous libel suit against John Ruskin. Another effort to find a buyer likewise failed, this time in New York.
It is ironical for a painting which has come to symbolize Motherhood, that Whistler was "shopping" his mother's portrait around the U.S., looking for a sale.
Anna Whistler had died on January 3, 1881, only a short time before Whistler returned to the U.S. from England. One would have suspected that Whistler would try and keep this painting, of all his oeuvre, as a testimonial to his beloved mother. Not so! Whistler exhibited a baffling, mercurial mix of emotions, making it difficult to probe his true feelings.
In fact, Whistler had posed his mother only when the young woman he was scheduled to paint that day failed to appear. Rather than discard a prepared canvas, Whistler decided to use it for a portrait of his mother.
It's a sobering thought that Whistler's Mother began its storied career as an "also ran."
Anna Whistler was accustomed to her son's mood swings and changing priorities. She had supported her dear "Jemmie" with long-suffering patience, including his dismissal from the United States Military Academy. But even her forbearance had limits.
After several days of standing for her portrait, the exhausted Anna insisted on sitting down. Whistler changed the orientation of the painting, with results which, thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we can now study close at hand.
As the artistic skill devoted to his portrait of his mother began to stir popular interest, Whistler professed himself bemused:
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?
The "public" in America responded to Whistler's portrait of his mother with ever -increasing regard. In part this was due to the fact that the French had anointed the painting as worthy of the Louvre. But nostalgia played a major role, too. The U.S. in the 1890's was undergoing massive social changes, many very unsettling. Frontier America was passing, the big industrial cities taking its place. A symbol of bedrock national values was needed. What better image, representing the moral absolutes of the U.S.A., could there be than a painting of an American mother?
Anna McNeil Whistler provided the human face, even if painted in profile, to the movement to create a national holiday in honor of American mothers. The first Mothers Day was celebrated in 1908 and, in 1934, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp, graced by a rather sanitized reworking of Whistler's Mother.
Neither the artist or his mother were acknowledged by name on the stamp. To make matters worse, a vase of flowers was added to the image of the unidentified matriarch. Then, along with a sentimental inscription, appeared the incredibly crass notification: three cents.
Whatever value the U.S. Postal Service placed on motherhood, Philadelphia artists responded very quickly and favorably to Whistler's Mother, following its display at PAFA in 1881. The current exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art brilliantly underscores the influence of Whistler on succeeding generations of American artists. But the crucial point of this legacy is that none of these later works of art is a direct "quotation" of Arrangement in Grey and Black.
Tanner saw Arrangement in Grey and Black in 1881. He was a student at PAFA at the time. Tanner then went to France for further study, eventually settling there. He would have seen Whistler's increasingly famous painting at the Luxemborg, as well.
In 1897, during a trip home to Philadelphia, Tanner posed his own mother for a portrait. The warm tones of brown, amber and the golden fabric of the shawl evoke feelings of life and well-being, in contrast to the somber, almost funereal, hues of Whistler's painting. Likewise, the relaxed, meditative gaze of Tanner's mother creates a mood vastly different from the frozen profile of Anna Whistler.
Sharing the gallery wall with Tanner's Portrait of the Artist's Mother is Cecilia Beaux's The Last Days of Childhood. Painted over the course of two years, 1883-85, this deeply moving work of art established Beaux's reputation as one of America's premier artists.
The Last Days of Childhood shares enough elements of setting and composition with Arrangement in Grey and Black that we can be fairly certain that Beaux saw and studied the Whistler painting during its display at PAFA, where she was taking classes. Beaux, a strong-willed and immensely talented young woman, later asserted that she had not been influenced by Whistler. But the evidence points to the contrary.
At the press preview, Jennifer Thompson discussed the "backstory" of The Last Days of Childhood. The protagonists of Beaux's painting were her elder sister, Etta, and Etta's son, Henry. That would seem to technically disqualify Beaux's painting from inclusion in an exhibition dedicated to artists and their mothers, but Thompson detects a strong affinity with Whistler's masterpiece.
Indirectly, Beaux's mother is very much present in the The Last Days of Childhood. The French title of the painting uses the word "enfance" and the translation might more appropriately be The Last Days of Infancy. That is certainly in keeping with Henry's age and Beaux's own life story.
Beaux's mother had died when her infant daughter, Cecilia, was only twelve days old. Beaux directed her sister to wear a black dress for the painting sessions. According to social conventions in America at the time, such attire was a sign of mourning. However, Etta, unlike Anna Whistler, was not a widow. The black dress may therefore be interpreted as a memorial of their long-dead mother.
What really impressed me about The Last Days of Childhood is Beaux's ability to reprise the narrative of the entire work in "a painting within the painting." This is her astonishing treatment of the hands of the child, resting on those of his mother, which are folded over his body in an embrace of enduring love. Childhood may be passing but the bond of mother and son will never break.
The look of recognition of life's short span which we see on the face of Alice Neel's mother brings The Artist's Mother exhibition full circle. Anna Whistler's face, seen in profile, betrayed no such emotion. But no one knows what she was thinking, as her son fumed and muttered about the difficulties he faced to get the look he wanted on the canvas.
"When you enter the gallery where Whistler's Mother is displayed, you just don't go to see it," Anne said. "You are admitted into her presence."
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Copyright of Anne Lloyd.
Introductory Image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) James Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother (detail), 1871.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) James Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother. Oil on canvas: 144.3 x 162.5 cm (56 3/4 x 64"). Musée d'Orsay, Paris, RF 699.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of The Artist's Mother: Whistler and Philadelphia exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Francesco Novelli (Italian, 1764-1836) After Rembrandt van Rijn's The Artist's Mother Seated, in an Oriental Headdress: Half Length, 1792. Etching: 5 1/4 x 5 1/16 inches ( 13.4 x 12.9 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1928-42-4413
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Jennifer Thompson of the Philadelphia Museum of Art discussing the kimono wall hanging depicted Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Henry Ossawa Tanner's Portrait of the Artist's Mother (detail), 1897. Oil on canvas: 29 1/4 x 39 1/2 inches ( 74.3 x 100.3 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art EW1993-61-1
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Jennifer Thompson of the Philadelphia Museum of Art discussing Cecilia Beaux's early masterpiece, The Last Days of Childhood, 1993-85.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Cecilia Beaux's The Last Days of Childhood, 1883-85. Oil on canvas: 116.2 x 137.16 cm (45 3/4 x 54 inches). Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 1989.21
Dox Thrash (American, 1893–1965) Sunday Morning, around 1939. Etching: 8 7/8 x 8 inches (22.5 x 20.3 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1941-53-378
Sidney Goodman (American, 1936-2013) Artist's Mother I, 1994. Charcoal and pastel on cream wove paper: 52 3/4 x 41 3/16 inches (134 x 104.6 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009-216-1
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) John Sloan's Mother, 1906. Etching: 9 x 7 1/2 inches (22.9 x 19.1 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1956-35-73f
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Alice Neel's Last Sickness, 1953. Oil on canvas: 30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2003-148-1
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of The Artist's Mother: Whistler and Philadelphia exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art..