Home Arts Whistler’s iconic portrait of his mother returns to Philadelphia 142 years after it debuted in the United States

Whistler’s iconic portrait of his mother returns to Philadelphia 142 years after it debuted in the United States

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The landmark painting of his mother by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Gray and Black N°1 (1871) – widely known as “Whistler’s Mother” – will return to Philadelphia this spring 142 years after its American debut in the city.

The work, on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, will be the centerpiece of the collective exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Museum (PMA), The Artist’s Mother: Whistler and Philadelphia, anchoring a suite of works that explore how artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Cecilia Beaux, Sidney Goodman and Alice Neel conveyed their relationship with their mothers through their practices. Another highlight will be Francesco Novelli’s 1792 copy of Rembrandt’s engraving of his mother, The artist’s mother seated, in an oriental headdress: half-length (1631), which is said to have inspired Whistler to experiment with the subject.

Cecile Beaux, The last days of childhood1883-85 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, gift of Cecilia Drinker Saltonstall

Whistler’s painting depicts the American-born artist’s mother, Anna Mathilda, in her studio in London’s Chelsea district, in left profile, donning a long black dress and a white headscarf. The light emphasizes the face and hands of the seated person, as opposed to an overall muted palette. Artist’s engraving of the River Thames, Black Lion Pier (1859), hanging on the wall behind his mother, while one of Whistler’s kimonos covers the left corner of the composition. The painting’s worldwide recognition, which has led some to dub the work “the American Mona Lisa”, is in part due to the woman’s elusive expression and the mysteries surrounding the juxtaposition of elements in the composition.

“Motherhood is of course a very universal and human subject,” says Jennifer Thompson, curator of European painting and sculpture at the PMA and organizer of the exhibition. Unlike the sentimental subject, the figure’s low-key, almost ghostly presence has perplexed viewers since the painting was unveiled in London in 1872. “There is a strong disregard for her, as if she were hiding information from us.”

Whistler’s matte brushstrokes lend a dreamlike blur to the juxtaposed elements of the painting, an effect which is also due in part to his decision to create the work on the back of an old canvas. “In our minds, the work is crisp and detailed, but in reality, the paint seems to be soaked through the canvas, which in some way represents the relationship between the artist and the muse,” says Thompson.

Henry Osawa Tanner, Portrait of the artist’s mother1897 Philadelphia Museum of Art

His decision to bring the painting to the town where Whistler briefly lived stemmed in part from the idea of ​​associating it with Tanner’s painting. Portrait of the artist’s mother (1897), which is part of the permanent collection of the PMA. The show will also feature the engraving depicted in the painting, from Whistler’s Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and Other Subjects series (1871).

Whistler’s Mother’s first and only stay in Philadelphia – and her debut in the United States – was in 1881 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It traveled across the United States in the early 1930s as part of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition 70 Years of American Painting and Sculpture. According to Thompson, the social and economic unrest of the time helped fuel widespread admiration for the painting. “During the Great Depression, Whistler’s portrayal of his mother with dignity and pathos had enormous appeal in terms of Americanness,” she says. “Its soothing familiarity caused a stir at the time, so much so that the image appeared on stamps.”

mom’s son

Whistler’s mother was a far more powerful influence on his life than the painting suggests. In 1863, aged 59, she moved to the United Kingdom to escape the American Civil War and put her bohemian son’s life in order. “She took control of the day-to-day operations of Whistler and started running the studio and even managing its sales,” says Thompson. After briefly providing his mother’s painting to his dealer as security for his debt, Whistler sold the work to the French government for the collection of the Louvre Museum in 1891.

“I hope the instantly recognizable artwork will encourage viewers to move through the space and put Whistler in context with his peers about how they approached their mothers,” adds Thompson.

  • The Artist’s Mother: Whistler and PhiladelphiaJune 10-October 29, Philadelphia Museum of Art

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