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Wednesday, 1 July 2015


Our ‘picture this’ series focuses on a variety of influential portraits, including much-loved works by Johannes Vermeer, Diego Velazquez, Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, John Singer Sargent and Henri Matisse. First, we take a look at Whistler’s iconic portrait of his mother:

 James Abbott McNeill Whistler:  Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, also called Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Oil on Canvas, 1871, © RMN- Grand Palais (Musee d'Orsay)/ Jean- Gilles Berizzi
'Art should be independent of all clap-trap, should...appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it...take the picture of my an Arrangement in Grey and Black. Now that is what it is...what can or ourhgt the public care about the identity of the portrait?' - J.M. Whistler, from The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890. 

Whistler was an American by nationality but divided his career between Paris and London. In 1856, Whistler enrolled in Charles Gleyre’s studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and two years later entered into business with Alphonse Legros and Fatin-Latour in order to ensure that his works were well spread. 

Fatin-Latour placed Whistler in the centre of his painting Homage to Delacroix. He is accompanied by Manet and Baudelaire and was thus firmly established as a member of the Parisian avant-garde. He was also closely associated with Gustav Courbet, who for a short while considered Whistler his pupil. 

Whistler's portrait of his mother alludes to the realistic aesthetic of his early practice. Yet interestingly, like several other paintings such as Symphony in White, this portrait has a double title that emphasises his strong preoccupation with style over subject matter and the musical notion of harmony that dominated his later practice. 

The stark and unsentimental portrayal of his mother was perceived as radical by contemporaries.

In 1884, a Parisian critic wrote that ‘it was disturbing, mysterious, of a different colour from those we are accustomed to seeing. Also the canvas was scarcely covered, its grain almost invisible; the compatibility of the grey and the truly inky black was a joy to the eye, surprised by these unusual harmonies.’  

Many misunderstood Whistler’s artistic goals, searching for sentimentality in the portrait rather than appreciating his primary aesthetic purpose to arrange line and colour in an appealing way. 

The psychological shrewdness and austere nature of the painting is effectively reinforced by the intentionally simplified composition. The strong linearity, simplification of form and narrow range of neutral tones demonstrates Whistler’s interest in prints, which is alluded to in the View of the Thames that hangs on the wall behind his mother. 

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