In 1878, James McNeill Whistler said about his most famous painting, Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1, or The Artist’s Mother, “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?” Painted in 1871, the portrait was intended to demonstrate Whistler’s recent focus on tonal harmonies over subject matter.
Both austere and ambitious, accurate and abstract, the portrait serves as a quintessential expression of his then-newly developed “art for art’s sake” aesthetic. The composition—better known today as “Whistler’s Mother”—was initially met with puzzlement, but it was soon heralded, spurring a staggering quantity of critical responses, reproductions in various media, and references within popular culture. Despite Whistler’s intentions, the portrait of Anna McNeill Whistler has thus become an icon of motherhood, beloved to Americans but rarely seen in the United States.
In March, Whistler’s masterpiece returns to Chicago for the first time in over 60 years. The fame of this iconic work is considered in a focused installation of approximately 25 objects, including small- and large-format paintings, prints, drawings, posters, and other ephemera. The presentation also explores Whistler’s use of family members as subjects, his abstract treatment of conventional genres such as portraiture and landscape, and the arc of his professional ambition.
The return of “Whistler’s Mother” to the Art Institute of Chicago is especially meaningful given the museum’s deep holdings of Whistler’s paintings, prints, and drawings. Championed by the museum during his lifetime, Whistler is one of the 19th-century artists whose work lies at the core of the Art Institute’s collection.
Exhibition overview from museum website
Whether you go or not, Whistler and His Mother: An Unexpected Relationship: Secrets of an American Masterpiece uncovers the intersections between Whistler’s flawed genius, his struggle for recognition, his troubled relationship with his mother and mistresses, and the unprecedented historical response to his greatest work. Walden’s findings read like a detective story, and her controversial and progressive views on art restoration combine with biography and criticism to create a gripping narrative that skillfully weaves history and aesthetics into a seamless tapestry. While restoring the painting for the Louvre, Sarah Walden became intrigued by the extraordinary and complex history of the painting, which had never been fully explored.
Whistler painted his mother on impulse, when she came to London to escape the American Civil War, forcing him to evict his mistress from his house. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between Whistler’s outrageously flamboyant life in London—where he famously befriended Oscar Wilde and Dante Gabriel Rossetti—and the subdued, touchingly melancholic depiction of his Puritan mother he entitled “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” This portrait has become one of the world's best-known paintings and an American icon, yet we know remarkably little about it.