When bad boy artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s mother first came to live with him in London in 1864, he had to hide evidence of his bohemian lifestyle – including his mistress. “General upheaval!!’ he wrote to his friend Henri Fantin-Latour. “I had to empty my house and purify it from cellar to eaves.”
But her visit would help make his dream come true.
One day when a model didn’t show up, he asked his mother to sit for her portrait. That portrait would hang in the Louvre and become one of the best known works of art in the world.
Much has been written about the painting formally titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, but better known as Whistler’s Mother. Critics have called it enigmatic, bewitching, disturbing mysterious. Whistler insisted it shouldn’t be viewed as a portrait but as an assembly of line, form and, color and tone.
Whistler himself later wrote,
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 do to care about the identity of the portrait?
But it is impossible to look at the pious, stalwart woman in the picture and not see a mother who has put up with a lot.
Anna McNeill was the second wife of George Washington Whistler, a prominent civil engineer who invented the locomotive whistle, designed the Boston & Providence Railroad and started the Boston & Lowell Railroad.
George Whistler was chief engineer for the Proprietors of Locks and Canals in Lowell, Mass., on July 11, 1834, when James Abbott Whistler, their oldest son, was born. He had three younger brothers, two of whom died young. His brother William became a Confederate soldier and surgeon during the Civil War.
He was an insolent child, given to fits of temper. His parents encouraged him to draw, because it calmed him down.
As a boy he spent six years in St. Petersburg with his family while his father worked on the Moscow-Saint Petersburg Railway.
When his father died in 1849 he moved with his mother to her hometown of Pomfret, Conn.
He enrolled in West Point but got kicked out for bad behavior and poor marks — by Robert E. Lee, then commandant. He moved to Paris at the age of 21, never to live in the United States again.
Whistler cut quite a figure in London as a publicity hound and bon vivant. He gave extravagant brunches he couldn’t afford and made enemies of his friends. The great artist Edgar Degas once said to him, “Whistler, you behave as if you have no talent.”
His religious mother put a damper on his lifestyle when she came to live with him in 1864. She gave religious tracts to his decadent poet friend, Algernon Charles Swinburne, She also destroyed some of her son’s drawings because they disgusted her.
Painting Whistler’s Mother
He painted her seated in 1871 because she didn’t have enough stamina to stand for hours on end. He worked hard to get the painting just right, and he did capture his mother’s expression of patient forbearance. She was, in fact, praying while she posed. Perhaps she prayed for him.
Despite their differences, Whistler was devoted to his mother. After she died on Jan. 3, 1881, he took her maiden name as his middle name. He said he saw in his mother’s face, ‘grace wedded to dignity, strength enhancing sweetness.’
Whistler was perennially broke, and the painting was in hock when his mother died. He borrowed money to get it back. His friend Degas arranged to have it exhibited at the French Salon, where it won a prize. Some of his other friends lobbied to have it purchased by the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris.
Like a Dream
Whistler was thrilled to see it hanging in the museum. He wrote,
Just think — to go and look at one’s own picture hanging on the walls of Luxembourg — remembering how it had been treated in England — to be met everywhere with deference and respect…and to know that all this is … a tremendous slap in the face to the Academy and the rest! Really it is like a dream.
When the historian Thomas Carlyle saw the painting, he agreed to sit for a similar portrait, one with much warmer tones. Whistler called it Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2. That’s how Whistler’s Mother came to be Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. It is one of the most famous paintings in the world.
This story was updated in 2022.