Sunday 27 July 2008


“As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight.” – James Abbott McNeill Whistler

A painting by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) today: “Portrait of the Artist's Mother Arrangement in Grey and Black” 1871 - Musee d'Orsay, Paris (144.3 x 162.4 cm).

James Abbot McNeill Whistler was born in America, yet he spent much of his life abroad. Early years were spent in Russia and then in London, only moving back to America with his family out of necessity when his father died of cholera. While a child in Russia, Whistler had attended drawing classes, but it wasn't until 1855 after dropping out of West Point Military Academy that he embarked on an artistic career. He moved back to Europe from America, settling in Paris.

This was the beginning of a lifetime commitment to art. He quickly made his presence felt due to his flamboyant, eccentric ways. He would go about Paris wearing a straw hat, a white suit, highly polished black patent leather shoes and a monocle. Whistler first achieved critical and commercial success as an etcher, producing meticulously drawn prints of working-class life in rural France and London. His earliest important oil paintings evidence Courbet's influence, featuring the commonplace subjects and vigorous brushwork characteristic of the older artist's work.

Whistler's art changed dramatically in the 1860s. Influenced by Greek sculpture, Asian porcelain, and Japanese prints, he rejected the idea that the success of an art object could be measured by its accuracy as a representation or the effectiveness with which it told a story or suggested a moral. Instead, he became convinced that an art object was best understood as an autonomous creation to be valued only for the success with which it organized color and line into a formally satisfying and therefore beautiful whole. Abandoning the idea that paintings should create the illusion of pictorial depth, he developed the flatter, more purely decorative style for which he is best known.

In 1863 Whistler's mother moved to England to be with her son. In 1871 his style moved towards greater simplicity when he painted “Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother”. The figure sits in profile on a light background. The horizontal lines of the skirting boards are what holds the elements in place. The only decoration seen in the light dabs of paint defining a pattern on the curtain. The great expanses of black and grey make this portrait an extremely formal one, something re-enforced by the stiff pose of the sitter. The portrait perhaps hints at the relationship Whistler had with his mother. He paints a woman who gazes straight ahead and who sits stiffly and inflexibly. Her face still has vestiges of beauty, although her age has tempered perhaps her once joyful mien. Her son was a roué and his life of pleasure and wastrel ways could hardly find approval with this woman, one would think. Whistler paints a conservative, cold portrait of a woman he perhaps respects more than he loves…