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Artfully maternal

In portraying motherhood, the arts, from posed portrait to TV cartoon, continually redefine the impact of humans' most essential love affair.

Published May 13, 2006

James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother, 1871, oil on canvas, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

Behold the mother: an icon of selflessness and virtue, the parent we would all like to be or have.

Anna McNeill Whistler is the most famous mother ever painted by her offspring.

It's probable that neither she nor her son, the famously egotistical James McNeill Whistler 1834-1903, would be pleased by her greater celebrity.

Whistler had intended to work on a commissioned painting during 1871 but was thwarted when the model didn't show up. So he decided to paint his mother.

He supposedly finished the portrait in about three months, a record for an artist who was notorious for the protracted sittings he demanded for a portrait, sometimes as many as 70.

He titled the painting Arrangement in Grey and Black with an oh-by-the-way subtitle, Portrait of the Painter's Mother, considering it more an exploration of color and composition than a maternal homage.

Whistler did not sell the work until 1892, when the French government bought it for the Musee du Luxembourg, the equivalent of the Louvre for living artists. Whistler was the first American to be so honored.

His mother did not live to see her son's triumph; she died in 1881.

The painting became an international icon in the 1930s, when the French government, which never loaned its art outside of France, made an exception and sent it on a U.S. tour.

The American press and public fell all over the painting. Its appeal was probably that it was in the right place at the right time; America was in the grip of the Great Depression and Anna Whistler's strength of character resonated during a climate of fear and unrest. During his life, Whistler fought sentimental interpretations of his painting, saying, "Arrangement in Grey and Black. Now that is what it is,'' but by 1934, its formal name was all but forgotten by everyone except academics. It had become Whistler's Mother.

With fame came imitation. (She appeared on a 3-cent postage stamp in 1934.) And, inevitably, caricature. Anna Whistler is one of the most parodied images in popular culture. Humorous variations of her pose have been used for cartoon spoofs and political satires, magazine covers and artistic broadsides.

Unlike so many celebrities whose veneers of self-invention crack under scrutiny, Mrs. Whistler was what she seems in her portrait, and that honesty is the truest and most loving tribute James McNeill Whistler could have given his mother. That this unassuming woman was the vehicle for the success and fame he craved is an enduring irony.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or

[Last modified May 13, 2006, 08:03:24]

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