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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“Whistler’s Mother” by James McNeill Whistler 

"Whistler's Mother" by James McNeill Whistler

“Whistler’s Mother” by James McNeill Whistler

“Whistler’s Mother” by James McNeill Whistler depicts the painter’s mother, Anna McNeill Whistler. Its title is “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” but is best known by its colloquial name “Whistler’s Mother.” It is one of the most famous works by an American artist. The painting has been featured in posters and stamps. It has also been referenced in many works of fiction and within pop culture.

An example is a Canadian War recruitment poster that urges men to enlist with the Irish Canadian Rangers and to fight for the women in their own lives. Based on Whistler’s painting of his mother, it appeals to notions of motherhood and family values that were popular at the time and often attributed to this picture.

"Whistler's Mother" by James McNeill Whistler

The image has been used as an icon for motherhood, affection for parents, and “family values” in general. In 1934 the U.S. Post office issued a stamp engraved with a stylized image of Whistler’s Mother, accompanied by the slogan:

“In Memory and In Honor of the Mothers of America.”

"Whistler's Mother" by James McNeill Whistler

“Whistler’s Mother”  Stamp issued in 1934

James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) was an American artist active during the American Gilded Age and based primarily in the United Kingdom. He was averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting, and was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake.”

He found a parallel between painting and music and entitled many of his paintings “arrangements,” “harmonies,” and “nocturnes,” emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony. Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his artistic theories and his friendships with leading artists and writers.

His famous signature for his paintings was in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail.

Whistler’s Mother

  • Title:                       Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1
  • Popular Title:          Whistler’s Mother
  • Artist:                      James McNeill Whistler
  • Year:                       1871
  • Medium:                 Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions            Height: 144.3 cm (56.8 in). Width: 162.4 cm (63.9 in).
  • Museum:                Musée d’Orsay, Paris

James McNeill Whistler

A Tour of the Musée d’Orsay

Reflections

  • Does this painting still appeal to notions of motherhood and family values?
  • Why was this painting rejected by the English Arts establishment, but accepted by the French?

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“An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”
– James Abbott McNeill Whistler

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Photo Credit: 1)  James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Hal Ross Perrigard, Harris Lithographing Co. Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By US Post Office (US Post Office) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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