Whistler’s Mother: Analysis and Meaning

Whistler's Mother

Colors are one of the most striking features of a painting. The extra stimulation of vibrancy and clear contours is what makes us pay attention. Monochrome art, meaning that which uses different shades of just one color has become increasingly popular in the 21st century. However, in his painting the Whistler’s Mother through the dull shades of his greyscale palette expresses sentimentalism doused in moral allusions, all in the absence of “color”.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Despite being an American by birth, Whistler split his career between Paris and London. James McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on July 10, 1834. In order to assure better distribution of his works, he entered into a partnership with Alphonse Legros and Fantin-Latour two years after enrolling in Charles Gleyre’s studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Alongside Manet and Baudelaire, Fantin-Latour placed him in the heart of his picture Homage to Delacroix to formally establish his membership in the Parisian avant-garde genre.

Whistler used a variety of techniques in his paintings, demonstrating his wide range of influences. Charles Baudelaire, who expressed his views on “modern” art, was one of these influencers. He encouraged McNeill to examine life’s violence in order to accurately reflect it and give it more significance. The French painter Gustave Courbet also had a great influence on Whistler’s work.  At the age of 27, he was able to complete his first work of art, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl.

Symphony n White No.1: The White
Whistler’s First Painting: Symphony in White No.1, ‘The White Girl’

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1

One of Whistler’s best-known paintings is his “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. Since the model for this piece was the painter’s mother, it has been also named ‘Whistler’s Mother’. The masterpiece was completed over a hundred years ago in 1871. 

The art, which the French government purchased in 1891, is currently among the most well-known creations by an American artist outside of the United States. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris is the current owner of this oil on canvas work. Art enthusiasts are in awe of this work to this day whenever the masterpiece visits their nation’s museums. The piece featuring Anna McNeil Whistler spans 56.8 by 63.9 inches.

Whistler’s Mother

The purposefully simplified composition effectively conveys the portrait’s psychological sensitivity. The piece continued Whistler’s exploration of prints with its linear simplicity and chromatic rigor dominated by neutral tones. The wall features a View of the Thames that serves as an allusion to Whistler’s experimentation with prints. After returning from Paris, where he studied traditional art techniques at the Ecole Impériale, Whistler created this work.

Whistler’s Mother is a rather conventional composition in comparison to the works of art coming in a few years later by van Gogh and Gauguin. It is interesting to note a rather abrupt switch of art styles from realism to impressionism in a matter of 10 years.  

According to reports, James’ model couldn’t commit to the project, that’s when he opted to paint his mother’s portrait. This iconic picture was the result of extensive experimentation. James Whistler asked his mother to take a picture for him while she was standing, but she found it too strenuous.

Whistler's Mother
Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Whistler’s Mother

Anna McNeill Whistler

Whistler insists that his mother does not add any symbolic meaning to the painting. However, it seems that unconsciously he painted a lot of his mother’s character onto the canvas. This painting was created at a time when the civil war had taken the lives of three of Anna McNeill Whisler’s sons. 

As a widow in poor health and with sympathies split between the north and south during the Civil War, she made the decision to go to London to be with her son.

She is purposefully portrayed by Whistler as a rock-solid fortress, a moral bulwark whose mere presence appears to have a calming yet intimidating influence. She is gazing calmly ahead, possibly lost in the somber reflection of her life and the tumult all around. Dressed in the traditional black mourning attire, and her white coif and white lace trim are signs that she has been a widow for a while. In 1871, when she was 67 and ill, the artist decided against the standing portrait he had first suggested and instead sat his mother side-on, raised her feet off the cold ground on a stool, and positioned her against a drawn curtain with one of his framed etchings on the wall.

These small details are particularly significant to understand the depth of his work. The structure of the artist implicitly depicts the artist’s relationship with his mother. This relationship can be inferred subjectively by the viewers.

Whistler’s color palette

His palette is a clear example of art from the Gilded Age. A refined sober selection of colors, enhanced by elegance. Even though most of the frame is covered by a dull, hard gray wall, one cannot miss the softness of his strokes.  

Posing a stark contrast to Impressionists, Whistler’s composition features thin washes of colors. The process sure is slow, but as we can see it is definitely worth the patients. Smooth, continuous strokes enhance the tonal balance and harmony of the painting.

Whistler's Mother Painting
Grayscale Color Palette

An example of restraint, and simplicity along with an austere palette is what sets it apart. The painter handles a strong geometric structure and realism in his work beautifully. 

Whistler was able to fully convey his technique of tonal composition and harmony in this painting. The picture appears straightforward at first glance. The artwork does, however, depict a balance between the many shapes in the image upon closer scrutiny. He was able to employ the appropriate rectangular shape for the floor, the drapes, and the painting on the wall. This gave his mother’s face, outfit, and chair a clearer and more stable view.

Details that stand out

Whistler expertly strikes a balance between fragility and strength and also delicacy and aggressiveness in his paintings, which are executed on a blank canvas with thin coats of color. His mother appears to be standing on a pedestal, both literal and symbolic, as her black dress hangs over the edge of a thin brown strip of color at the bottom of the painting. His summary of her personality is immediately comprehensible and sticks in our minds.

The several layers of paint are what enhance the realism of this work. One detail in the painting that has me mesmerized is indubitably the use of transparency in the cloth. It seems as if you can almost feel the texture of the lace and its softness by how beautifully it drapes. The fragility of the cloth is balanced with his mother’s stern look and the years on her skin.

The Bottom Line

The Whistler’s Mother has joined the Mona Lisa and Girl with a Pearl Earring as a pin-up of popular art that is immediately quotable. The American painter who was stationed in London had no interest in painting her mother specifically. However, her presence turned out to be a serendipitous event. With her inclusion, Whistler unknowingly managed to evoke and associate strong emotions with the painting.  He was actually motivated by the technical difficulty of modulating black and grey tone, as the actual title of the image denotes.

Different art reviewers at the time had differing opinions on this picture. It was claimed that Whistler’s mother’s attire and position served as a symbol of mourning. This criticism might have been prompted by the artist’s use of gloomy hues in the piece. Others see this incredible piece of artwork as the ideal representation of parenting. As a subjective viewer, I feel that the Whistler’s Mother is an epitome of resilience and not mourning. Every time you look at this painting, it will convey a distinct mood. Whistler’s Mother is one of the most well-known paintings in history even today.

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